New York: The blizzard that dropped a foot or more of snow across a staggeringly wide area of the country, from Oklahoma up through a paralyzed Chicago and across parts of an ice-glazed New England, finally began to weaken Wednesday. It left behind a long trail of spun-out cars, darkened homes, closed schools and stranded fliers.
But the harsh winter weather was not over, forecasters warned: a bitter cold front threatened to follow the storm, bringing subzero temperatures to many areas trying to dig out.
So even as Chicago was trying to recover from the third-biggest snowfall in its history -- a monster of a storm that smothered the city in 20.2 inches of snow, stranded hundreds of drivers on Lake Shore Drive for hours, closed the city's schools for the first time in a dozen years and whipped up gusts that reached 70 miles an hour at one point -- the National Weather Service was still issuing warnings. The temperature there was expected to fall to 5 below zero overnight, and to 20 below in outlying areas, with the wind chill making it feel colder.
"It's going to be a while before the snow and ice melts in a lot of areas," said Christopher Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, noting that cold air was expected to pour down from northern Wisconsin all the way to Houston, which is forecast to have a hard freeze. "This was a large, giant, powerful storm."
It was a terrible day for travel, whether by train, plane or automobile. More than 6,000 flights, about a fifth of the country's air traffic, were canceled on Wednesday, according to FlightAware.com, which tracks air travel.
Amtrak shut down service between New York and Philadelphia during the morning rush hour, and canceled many trains in and out of Chicago. Not only were side roads closed by snow and ice, but Interstate highways also were shut down.
Two-thirds of the country seemed to be reeling from one form of extreme weather or another. There were tornado warnings along the Gulf Coast. Snow and ice forced Texas to institute rolling power blackouts. The heavy snow in Oklahoma left The Tulsa World unable to print the newspaper for the first time in its 106-year history. Both Milwaukee and Chicago groaned under heavy snow.
In New York, falling ice shut both the Verrazano-Narrows and George Washington Bridges for part of the morning. And the snow, ice and freezing rain continued to move east across New England, and might have contributed to the collapse of an office building in Middletown, Conn., that sprayed bricks across Main Street.
With 30 states feeling the storm's impact, the National Weather Service had to upgrade its Web site to handle traffic that reached up to 20 million hits an hour, officials said. Snow fell from New Mexico and Texas up to Minnesota, and east to Maine.
Several places were hit with more than two feet of snow, and by Wednesday evening more than a foot of snow had been recorded in parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and several other states were close behind.
In Washington, President Obama was briefed by officials from the Department of Homeland Security and theFederal Emergency Management Agency. The dangers of the storm were not over, and officials said it might have contributed to deaths from causes like car accidents and heart attacks in several states.
"The deep snow accumulation will make shoveling very difficult," warned the National Weather Service, "and potentially deadly."
Of course, all was not Snowmageddon. The white snow softened the hard edges of cities and towns around the nation, turning them into glittering Currier & Ives-like vistas, with stalactite icicles dripping from the eaves of houses. School closings made snowball fights easier, and the children of Chicago, many of whom had never had a snow day in their lives, found themselves sprung from classes not only on Wednesday but on Thursday as well.
But there were also plenty of headaches, and not only from the tear-inducing cold air that began to trickle down from the north. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were left without power, especially in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Commutes were slippery messes, where they were possible at all. In many places the temperatures dipped just in time to turn slushy streets into dangerously icy streets. Shoveling felt like a Sisyphean task, as new snow and ice kept coating the cleared sidewalks.
In Boston, which has already received more than five feet of snow this winter, the back-to-back snowstorms on Tuesday and Wednesday had some people feeling like they were living in a continuous loop.
That it was Feb. 2 -- Groundhog Day -- was not lost on Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. "It's Groundhog Day, and literally like 'Groundhog Day' the movie," he said, in a nod to the film in which a day keeps repeating itself.