CHICAGO A huge winter storm pummelled the United States on Wednesday, bringing parts of the Midwest to a standstill, delivering a wintry blow to the Northeast, and disrupting businesses, flights and other transport.
Major automakers shut down plants in six Midwestern states and Ontario, and were just a fraction of the commerce that felt the storm's wrath.
Grain and livestock movement by rail and road were also paralyzed in many areas. Wheat prices rose on worries that extreme cold to follow the storm could damage crops. Citrus growers in south Texas also feared extensive damage from a hard freeze.
The storm, touching some 30 states and a third of the U.S. population, stretched from New Mexico to Maine as it moved toward the northeast where an ice storm wreaked havoc on New York City.
Chicago was set to get its biggest snowfall in more than 40 years. Some 20 inches (54 cm) of snow was forecast to pile up by late Wednesday. Snowfalls of a foot (30 cm) or more were recorded from Oklahoma City to Kansas City and Indianapolis.
"This is pretty unbelievable. I was around in '67 but this is really crazy," said John Paczesny, 48, a Chicago church maintenance worker and suburban firefighter, who was out shovelling snow Wednesday morning.
On January 26-27, 1967, 23 inches of snow fell on Chicago, collapsing roofs and shutting down the city for days.
The website flightaware.com, which tracks airline cancellation information, said more than 5,600 flights had been cancelled in the United States so far on Wednesday. That followed thousands of flight cancellations on Tuesday.
"We're totally out of Chicago today; 920 cancellations in and out," said American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith.
Power was out for more than 375,000 customers from Texas to New England, and into Canada.. The Texas power grid operator imposed rolling blackouts as frigid weather swept across the state, leaving 3 million homes temporarily without electricity.
Treacherous ice, rather than deep snow, hit New York City. The heavily used commuter rail service between New Jersey and New York was suspended due to ice buildup on the overhead power lines, authorities said. Public transportation in other major cities, including Boston, was also disrupted.
But Wall Street trading was not affected by the storm as exchanges opened on time and many traders worked from home. Equities trading volume through midday was in line with an average to slightly below-average day.
The huge two-day storm delivered its strongest punch to the Midwest, dumping as much as three inches (7.6 cm) of snow an hour on Chicago during most of the night along with winds of up to 40 miles per hour (65 kph).
Chicago's two major airports cancelled a combined 2,000 flights, the city's Department of Aviation said. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport is the second busiest in the United States, after Atlanta.
Major interstate highways in the Plains and Midwest were closed and a state of emergency was declared across the area.
Major railroads, including Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Norfolk Southern Corp (NSC.N), which transport goods from coal to fertilizer to forest products across the United States, said snow and ice was slowing them down.
"The impact is widespread, just as the weather conditions are," said BNSF spokesman Steven Forsberg.
Norfolk Southern Corp warned customers with shipments moving through the Midwest to expect delays of up to 48 hours and potential routing changes as well.
'HISTORIC STORM' IN CHICAGO
Chicago's Lake Shore Drive along Lake Michigan was closed as snow drifted waist deep over the road. The road turned into a playground for local residents and their dogs.
The third biggest city in the United States could end up with the largest snowfall since 1967, city officials said.
"We will continue to do everything we can to protect the safety of the residents of this city as we deal with the impact of this historic storm," Chicago city chief of staff Ray Orozco told an early morning news conference.
City streets were relatively deserted, but a few brave souls were out and about.
"I had to shovel a path to the front gate but that wasn't too bad and I'm only 3 blocks from the 'L' and it was working," said Robin DeRossa, an employee with Volt, a staffing agency. "You get a lot more done when no one else is in the office."
In the Northeast, already facing a wintry mix of snow and sleet, the storm was expected to dump 12-18 inches (30-45 cm) of snow on Boston through Wednesday.
Snow was not the only hazard.
"The thing we're most fearful of is freezing rain. It could turn the roads into ice rinks pretty quickly," Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman Peter Judge said.
The storm wreaked havoc on agricultural operations, threatening the dormant winter wheat crop and livestock, and slowing the processing and transportation of agricultural commodities.
Forecaster Accuweather said some winter wheat crops in the Plains states were at risk from cold weather, while those in the Midwest at least had an protective blanket of snow.
Texas, the second largest U.S. producer of grapefruit and the third largest of Valencia oranges, braced for crop damage from the cold that could push fruit prices higher at the grocery store.
"We're pretty much going to concede that we will probably lose the rest of the fruit crop," said Ted Prukop of Texas Citrus Mutual.
As the blizzard moved northeast, a dangerous deep freeze followed in its wake from Montana and the mountain states through the Plains and south to Oklahoma.
The storm lost force in Canada, but it still sparked snowfall warnings from the maritime provinces along the east coast to Niagara Falls in the central province of Ontario.
SPRING AROUND THE CORNER?
But -- for those who believe in such things -- a rodent predicted on Wednesday that a particularly tough winter will be over soon.
The most famous groundhog in the United States, Punxsutawney Phil, emerged from a tree stump at dawn and, unusually, did not see his shadow, signalling that spring is just around the corner, according to tradition.
The rodent's "prognostication" each February 2 is an annual tradition that was brought to the United States by German immigrants, and is now watched by thousands of people who trek to a Pennsylvania hillside to witness the ceremony.
If the groundhog is judged to see its shadow, tradition holds that there will be six more weeks of winter.
(Additional reporting by Jon Hurdle in Philadelphia, Ryan Vlastelica and Ellen Wulfhorst in New York, Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Jim Forsyth in Texas and Pav Jordan in Toronto; Writing by Ros Krasny; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jackie Frank)