CHICAGO/BOSTON (Reuters) - A huge winter snow and ice storm cut a swathe from New Mexico to Maine on Wednesday, paralyzing much of the Midwest, stranding hundreds of thousands without power and stalling travelers and shipping.
The two-day storm touched some 30 states and a third of the U.S. population. But it delivered its strongest punch to the Midwest, dumping a near record 20 inches of snow on Chicago. It moved rapidly toward the northeast bringing treacherous ice to New York City.
“When you combine snow with wicked cold it brings even the toughest people in,” said Dennis Chapman, associate executive director of the City Union Mission in Kansas City, which sheltered nearly 400 people Tuesday night.
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 as many Americans chose to stay at home or were forced to by impassable roads. Grain and livestock transportation was paralyzed in many areas, and Texas citrus growers feared for their crops.
The high cost of clearing the massive storm, the latest in a string of big events this winter, is the latest pain in the budget for many U.S. cash-strapped cities and states.
“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 shoveling snow Wednesday morning.
On January 26-27, 1967, 23 inches of snow fell on Chicago, collapsing roofs and shutting down the city for days. This latest storm was the third on record.
The website flightaware.com, which tracks airline cancellation information, said more than 6,300 flights had been canceled in the United States so far on Wednesday. That followed thousands of flight cancellations on Tuesday.
“Other than September 11, I haven’t seen it shut down to this degree at all,” said travel website owner Terry Trippler.
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 for only the second time in two decades as frigid weather swept across the state, leaving 3 million homes temporarily without electricity.
Major interstate highways in the Plains and Midwest were closed and a state of emergency was declared across the area.
Major railroads Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC, Norfolk Southern Corp and CSX Corp, which transport goods from coal to fertilizer to forest products across the nation, said snow and ice was slowing them down.
“The impact is widespread, just as the weather conditions are,” said BNSF spokesman Steven Forsberg.
President Barack Obama got a briefing on the storm’s impact, and stressed the need for coordination at all levels of government to help states with the aftermath.
Oklahoma’s governor asked the White House to approve an emergency disaster declaration request, a move that would help cover some of the expenses of the storm.
From Rhode Island to North Carolina, funds set aside to clear roads and sidewalks this winter have run dry. To make matters worse, the price of salt used to melt ice and snow has doubled in recent years.
The cost of this week’s storm - the third worst on record — could eat up much of Chicago’s $14.8 million allocated for snow removal.
At least 1,500 motorists were stranded throughout Illinois, about 900 of them in the Chicago area, by drifting snow, accidents and blinding winds, state police said. National Guard troops were activated to help out with rescue efforts.
Chicago O’Hare International Airport, the second busiest airport in the United States after Atlanta, closed for part of Wednesday, as did many others in the region. United Airlines, Delta Air Lines Inc and American Airlines all suspended operations in Chicago.
The severe winter weather in North America and Europe has “put a dent in the (airline) industry’s recovery,” the International Air Transport Association said.
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 greatly affected. Equities trading volume for the day reflected an average to slightly below-average day.
In the Northeast, the storm was expected to dump 12-18 inches of snow on Boston through Wednesday, and in places turn into a more dangerous “wintry mix.”
The National Weather Service warned of a dangerous “flash freeze” for most of eastern Massachusetts as temperatures dropped rapidly Wednesday afternoon.
“The thing we’re most fearful of is freezing rain. It could turn the roads into ice rinks pretty quickly,” said Peter Judge, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman.
Boston’s Logan International Airport was closed to most flights as crews scrambled to keep runways clear.
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.
Wheat prices rose on worries that extreme cold to follow the storm could damage the dormant winter wheat crop and livestock.
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 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.
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, signaling 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