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Record blizzards shut down Washington, New York

February 11, 2010

Record blizzards that dumped several feet of snow, paralyzed much of the eastern United States, trapping millions in their homes and shutting down the federal government for a fourth day. 

Nearly 6,000 flights in airports between Washington and New York were canceled at the height of the storms Wednesday, stranding tens of thousands of passengers and hitting flights across the country, officials said.

The latest snowfalls made the 2009-2010 winter the worst on record for the US capital. Conditions were so perilous that driving was banned for several hours in Baltimore.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered schools closed for a rare "snow day" and the United Nations headquarters closed, but the worst of the weather was in the Washington-Baltimore area, home to some eight million people.

Residents had barely dug themselves out from an avalanche of weekend snow when fresh blizzards struck, this time with Arctic winds of up to 55 miles (88 kilometers) per hour that made even the shortest trip hazardous.

"I urge all residents to heed the warnings of local officials and prioritize safety by staying off the roads unless absolutely necessary," Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano said.

One person was killed and another injured in a pile-up in central Pennsylvania, and several were injured in a 50-car pileup in Virginia, but most people avoided driving.

"You will risk your life and, potentially, the lives of others if you get stuck on highways or any road," warned Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania state.

The season's snowfall total in Washington DC reached 54.9 inches, the National Weather Service said, breaking "the previous all-time seasonal snowfall record ... of 54.4 inches set in the winter of 1898-99." The NWS said its weather data goes back to 1884.

Residents in Maryland and Virginia and the US capital faced more long days trying to entertain stir-crazy kids, some families still battling without power almost a week after the first storm barreled in.

"It's not easy to be cooped up inside with children," Virginia resident Maria Abousleiman told AFP.

"They can't even go outside and enjoy the snow because it's too windy and very cold. The roads are plowed but in our area, it's really bad because they only plowed once. Our street isn't given priority because it's a smaller street."

Snow plows in Baltimore were diverted to the port to pick up emergency shipments of salt to grit roads. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ordered all vehicles except emergency vehicles off the roads Wednesday, saying it was the worst two-day blizzard to strike the area since 1922.

Initially dubbed "Snowmageddon" by the media, the humor darkened as the novelty of the winter storm wore off. "Snoverkill" and "Say it ain't Snow" are the latest monikers used by Washingtonians.

"Every time my husband tried to get out, the car was stuck," said Abousleiman. "Every time you try to go out, there's an issue on the road, either a car stuck or one you have to push."

In the Washington area, most of the 230,000 federal employees were given an unprecedented fourth snow day off on Thursday, at a cost of some 100 million dollars a day in lost productivity.

Although plows removed snow and salted the roads around the clock, transport remains crippled by snow and ice-covered roads.

Washington's public transportation system will be barely work Thursday, officials said, with few bus routes scheduled to operate and above ground subway stations closed.

At the White House ghostly silhouettes could be made out on the roof clearing packs of snow. Few offices were operational and secret Service personnel abandoned their usual posts to hunker down in cars.

Washington, Virginia and Maryland have all declared emergencies, allowing them to mobilize the National Guard. Maryland was already relying on National Guard humvees to help out and answer some emergency calls.

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