A blustery late-season storm plastered the Northeast with sleet and snow Tuesday, paralyzing much of the Washington-to-Boston corridor after a stretch of unusually mild winter weather that had people thinking spring was already here.

The powerful nor'easter fell well short of the predicted snow totals in New York and Philadelphia but unloaded 31 to 61 centimetres in many places inland, grounded more than 6,000 flights and knocked out power to nearly a quarter-million customers from Virginia northward.

By the time it reached Massachusetts, it had turned into a blizzard, with near hurricane-force wind gusting over 113 km/h along the coast and waves crashing over the seawalls. 

The same system is also hammering parts of southern Ontario and Quebec, as well as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Parts of Newfoundland could get hit by the storm on Wednesday.

Hundreds of flights out of Toronto have been cancelled.

Plunging overnight temperatures threatened to turn the snow, sleet and sloppy mix into a slippery mess and threatened to lead to icy conditions on roads and sidewalks Wednesday.

It was easily the biggest storm in a merciful winter that had mostly spared the Northeast, and many weren't happy about it.

"It's horrible," said retired gumball-machine technician Don Zimmerman, of Lemoyne, Penn., using a snowblower to clear the sidewalk along his block. "I thought winter was out of here. ... It's a real kick in the rear."

While people mostly heeded dire warnings to stay home and off the roads, police said a 16-year-old girl was killed when she lost control of her car on a snowy road and hit a tree in Gilford, New Hampshire.

Airlines Canceled Flights

U.S. airlines have cancelled several thousand flights due to the storm, stranding thousands of people. (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)

The storm closed schools in cities big and small, Amtrak suspended service and the post office halted mail delivery.

Philadelphia and New York City got anywhere from a small covering of snow to around 15 centimetres before the storm switched over mostly to sleet; forecasters had predicted a foot or more. In New Jersey, which saw rain or just a little snow in many areas, Gov. Chris Christie called the storm an "underperformer." But officials warned of dangerous ice.

Inland areas, meanwhile, got hit hard. Harrisburg, Penn., and Worcester, Mass., received 30 centimetres or more of snow. The Binghamton, New York, area got over 60 centimetres, while Vernon, N.J., had at least 48 centimetres.

'Winters seem to be upside down'

The storm came just days after the region saw temperatures climb above 15 C, and less than a week before the official start of spring. February, too, was remarkably warm.

"The winters seem to be upside down now. January and February are nice and then March and April seem to be more wintry than they were in the past," said Bob Clifford, who ventured out on an early morning grocery run for his family in Altamont, near Albany, N.Y.

His advice: "Just hide inside. Hibernate."

Winter Weather

This satellite image taken around 12:12 a.m. ET Tuesday shows clouds around the U.S. northeast. (NOAA/Associated Press)

In the nation's capital, non-essential federal employees were given the option of reporting three hours late, taking the day off or working from home. The city got less than five centimetres of snow.

A few days ago, workers on Washington's National Mall were making plans to turn on the fountains.

"Obviously all that has to come to an abrupt stop until we get all the snow cleared," said Jeff Gowen, the acting facility manager for the National Mall and Memorial Parks. "The cherry blossoms, they're right on the cusp of going into bloom here. I had a feeling this was going to happen."

'Buy a shovel'

Kelly Erskine, a 28-year-old coffee shop manager from Whitman, Mass., about 40 kilometres south of Boston, made it almost all the way through the winter without a shovel. She went to Walmart on Tuesday morning to get one.

"I live in an apartment complex and they usually take care of the shovelling, but they sent a letter to us and said, 'Expect a lot of snow.' I knew from the letter that I'd have to go out and buy a shovel," she said.

As the storm closed in, the National Weather Service used terms like "life-threatening" and urged people to "shelter in place," language that has come to be associated with mass shootings. In the end, the line between snow and rain shifted slightly to the west, sparing some of the Northeast's big cities.

Winter Weather New York City

At least some people are enjoying the weather. Two men played golf with a tennis ball as the snowstorm swept through New York City's Times Square early Tuesday. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

Government meteorologists realized by late Monday afternoon that there was a good chance the storm wasn't going to produce the giant big-city snow totals predicted. But they didn't change their forecast for fear people would mistakenly think the storm was no longer dangerous, said Greg Carbin, chief of forecast operations at the Weather Prediction Centre.

In Pennsylvania, snowplows and state troopers escorted a 23-month-old child in need of a heart transplant 129 kilometres between hospitals. Gov. Tom Wolf said the youngster made the trip safely.

In Narragansett, R.I., high winds buckled a state-owned wind turbine. In New York City, two homes under construction collapsed near the waterfront in Far Rockaway. No injuries were reported.

And two ponies broke out of their stables and roamed the snowy streets of Staten Island until an off-duty police officer wrangled them with straps normally used to tow cars and tied them to a lamppost. They were taken back to the stables.

"We want to thank our cowboy officer," Mayor Bill de Blasio said.