WASHINGTON Heavy snowfall blanketed the East Coast on Saturday, disrupting public transport and air travel, and hampering holiday shoppers on the last weekend before Christmas.
Up to 22 inches (56 cms) of snow was expected to fall by Saturday night in the Baltimore-Washington area, more than any snowstorm to hit the region since February 2003, as the storm system moved north into New York and New England.
With snow falling at a rate of two inches an hour, Washington's Reagan National airport was closed until Sunday morning and most airlines canceled their flights from Dulles International Airport.
The driving snowstorm did not stop U.S. senators from convening and Democrats secured the pivotal 60th vote of holdout Senator Ben Nelson needed to ensure passage of the healthcare overhaul bill by Christmas.
The storm could take a big bite out of retail sales on one of the busiest shopping weekend of the year.
Airport officials said a majority of flights from Baltimore were canceled, Philadelphia International Airport was facing six-hour delays and New York's LaGuardia airport was also experiencing numerous airline cancellations.
Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty declared a snow emergency and asked District of Columbia residents to keep off the streets as the U.S. capital faced what one TV station dubbed "The Shopper Stopper Storm."
Washington closed above-ground operations of its Metrorail subway and stopped all bus services by early afternoon because streets were rapidly becoming impassable.
Even NFL football was hit by the storm. It was not clear if the Chicago Bears, whose Friday night charter flight was canceled because of the snow, would make it to Baltimore for Sunday's game against the Ravens.
The storm was expected to push through the mid-Atlantic region by Sunday morning and blanket points north including Philadelphia and New York City later in the weekend. The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for Boston, owing to powerful winds and a heavy snowfall of 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5.0 cms) an hour.
Forecasters were predicting 10 to 15 inches (25 to 38 cms) of snow for the New York metropolitan area, with higher amounts possible on the New Jersey coast and eastern Long Island.
Trains were also affected by the snow. Amtrak spokesperson Vernae Graham said trains along the northeast corridor between Boston and Washington were delayed by 30 to 60 minutes. There was a two- to three-hour delay on long-distance trains.
A state of emergency was declared by the governors of Virginia and Maryland and the states' National Guard services were called to respond to the storm.
Motorists across the region were urged to stay off treacherous roads and several main arteries were closed. In Washington, D.C., drivers who ventured out often had to abandon their cars due to deep snow on streets.
At least one person died in the storm. The Virginia Department of Emergency Management said a 68-year-old woman died in a car crash in southern Virginia on Friday night.
Rains from powerful Atlantic storms caused heavy flooding in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina earlier this week.
(Additional reporting by Chris Michaud in New York and Ben Klayman in Chicago, editing by Anthony Boadle and Jackie Frank)