Colossal U.S. blizzard blankets half the country

A fearsome storm blanketed nearly half the U.S. in snow Wednesday, snarling traffic from Oklahoma to New England and burying parts of the Midwest under 60 centimetres of the white stuff.

Tens of millions stay home to escape system battering Midwest

In Chicago, hundreds of cars were stranded on Lake Shore Drive overnight and into Wednesday morning. ((Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press))

A fearsome storm spread a smothering shroud of white over nearly half the U.S. Wednesday, snarling transportation from Oklahoma to New England, burying parts of the Midwest under 60 centimetres of snow and laying down dangerously heavy ice in the Northeast that was too much for some buildings to bear.

Tens of millions of people stayed home. The hardy few who ventured out faced howling winds that turned snowflakes into face-stinging needles. Chicago's 51 centimetres of snow was the city's third-largest amount on record. In New York's Central Park, the pathways resembled skating rinks.

The storm that resulted from two clashing air masses was, if not unprecedented, extraordinarily rare for its size and ferocious strength.

System blamed for 10 deaths

"A storm that produces a swath of 20-inch snow is really something we'd see once every 50 years — maybe," National Weather Service meteorologist Thomas Spriggs said. 

A satellite image from 2:31 p.m. Tuesday shows the winter storm stretching from the Colorado Rockies and Texas east to New England. ((NASA/Reuters))

Across the storm's path, lonely commuters struggled against drifts a metre deep in eerily silent streets, some of which had not seen a plow's blade since the snow started a day earlier. Parkas and ski goggles normally reserved for the slopes became essential for getting to work.

"This is probably the most snow I've seen in the last 34 years," said 34-year-old Chicagoan Michael George. "I saw some people cross-country skiing on my way to the train. It was pretty wild."

Overnight temperatures in northern parts of the Midwest were expected to fall to –20C, with wind chills dropping to about –30C.

The system was blamed for at least 10 deaths, including a homeless man who burned to death on Long Island, N.Y., as he tried to light cans of cooking fuel and a woman in Oklahoma City who was killed while being pulled behind a truck on a sled that hit a guard rail.

Snowplows drive westbound along Interstate 70 on Tuesday in Columbia, Mo. Earlier Wednesday, the Missouri Department of Transportation closed Interstate 70 between Kansas City and St. Louis because of the storm. ((Columbia Daily Tribune/Joshua A. Bickel/Associated Press))

Airport operations slowed to a crawl across the U.S., and flight cancellations reached 13,000 for the week, making this system the most disruptive so far this winter. A massive post-Christmas blizzard led to about 10,000 cancellations.

In the winter-weary Northeast, thick ice caused several structures to collapse, including a gas station canopy on Long Island and an airplane hangar near Boston. In at least two places, workers heard the structures beginning to crack and narrowly escaped.

More than a half-dozen states began digging out from up to 30 centimetres of snow that made roads treacherous and left hundreds of thousands of homes without power.

Chicago public schools cancelled classes for a second straight day.

Elsewhere, utility crews raced to restore power to tens of thousands of homes and businesses in Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where freezing rain and ice brought down electrical lines. Rolling blackouts were implemented across Texas, due to high demand during a rare ice storm.