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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A thick blanket of snow covered U.S. Northeast on Thursday, as the fifth major storm of the winter set snowfall records, delayed the opening of financial markets and clogged Washington highways with abandoned cars.
Snow fell from Virginia to Maine on Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, putting additional strain on cities and states already faced with overwhelming budget deficits. Almost 630,000 homes and businesses in the region lost power, but utilities said they hoped to restore electricity to most in the next two days.
The latest storm in an unusually snowy winter even trapped President Barack Obama who was among thousands of motorists on snow-blocked roadways at the height of the storm on Wednesday. Washington drivers reported 45-minute commutes turned into 10-hour nightmares when major thoroughfares became gridlocked with hundreds of abandoned cars.
"It looked like a bumper-car graveyard out there. There were so many abandoned cars, at so many different angles and so many different places on the road," a listener told Washington's WTOP radio.
New York has now recorded its snowiest January on record after 19 inches (48 cm) fell on the city overnight, twice the amount forecast and just short of the 20 inches (51 cm) that paralyzed the city on December 26-27 and created a political crisis for Mayor Michael Bloomberg because of a botched cleanup.
New York City has exhausted its snow budget of $38 million, forcing the city draw money from its general fund, a spokesman said. Smaller cities stand to feel the pinch even more.
U.S. government offices opened two hours later than normal in Washington, where the U.S. Commerce Department altered its release of durable goods data, cancelling the "lockup" in which it gives reporters the data for 30 minutes under embargo and instead posting the information on its website live.
In New York, floor trading on the NYMEX U.S. oil futures market, the COMEX commodities exchange and the ICE (ICE.N) agricultural and currency exchange opened a half hour or more later than usual because of the snow.
The city cancelled school for only the ninth time since 1978 because of snow.
"This is so much worse than we all expected," said Julia Scharf, 27, a dental technician. "I had to clean about 15 or so inches (38 cm) off my car before I could drive."
Amtrak suspended service between New York and Boston. New York City buses, commuter trains and subways all experienced delays, though the streets were noticeably clearer this time than after the December 27 blizzard.
"We learn," Bloomberg told a City Hall news conference on Thursday. "We asked the questions of what didn't work last time and whether there's anything we could do differently. ... Our expectation is that by tomorrow morning's rush hour all of the city streets and roadways will have been ploughed."
The New York area's John F. Kennedy International and Newark airports were closed for 10 hours and LaGuardia was also impacted. Officials cancelled 2,142 flights on Wednesday and Thursday.
After the snow grounded Obama's helicopter, his ground convoy could only inch its way along from Andrews Air Force Base in Virginia to the White House. Obama had been on a one-day trip to Wisconsin to sell his State of the Union speech, which he delivered to Congress on Tuesday.
His motorcade crawled through vehicles stuck in the snow and then got caught in snarled rush-hour traffic on the approach to the capital. At times his SUV and his protective vehicle escort became separated from the main body of the convoy, which included Obama's personal ambulance.
In Philadelphia, where 300 flights were cancelled, the storm closed courts and public schools, knocked out power some 15,000 households, and halted service on most city bus routes. Nine passengers spent part of the night on a bus that got stuck in the snow, officials said.
Boston's Logan International Airport saw 200 cancellations, and in the suburb of Lynn a partial roof collapse trapped two people in a vehicle parked inside a building, officials said. Both people were taken to hospital.
In Center Moriches, New York, a woman was killed when struck by a snowplow on Wednesday. (Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Bernd Debusmann Jr., Basil Katz and Joan Gralla in New York; Lauren Keiper in Boston; Ross Colvin, Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal in Washington; and Jon Hurdle in Philadelphia; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Jackie Frank)