NEW YORK - major storm slammed the mid-Atlantic and Northeast states with nearly 2 feet of windblown snow on Sunday, nearing record levels as it blacked out thousands of customers and shut down air travel from Washington to Boston.
Wind gusting to 40 mph blew the snow sideways and threatened coastal flooding in New England. And in a rare display, lightning lit up the falling snow before dawn in the New York metro area.
By late morning, 22.8 inches of snow had fallen in Central Park, the city's second heaviest snowfall on record, surpassed only by the 26.4 inches that fell in December 1947.
"This is a dangerous storm," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said as he urged people to stay home.
The storm interrupted a relatively mild winter - and came right after America's warmest January on record. The country's average temperature last month was 39.5 degrees Fahrenheit, 8.5 degrees above average for January, according to the National Climatic Data Center. The old record for January warmth was 37.3 degrees set in 1953.
On Sunday, New York City had more than 2,500 snow plows and salt spreaders at work, along with snow-melting machines that could dispose of up to 60 tons of snow per hour, officials said.
Elsewhere, 21 inches of snow had fallen at Columbia, Md., between Baltimore and Washington, and thousands of customers in that state had no electricity. Hartford, Conn., and Wayne, N.J., reported 19 inches and Philadelphia's northern and western suburbs measured up to 18, the National Weather Service said.
"It's going to be a menace trying to clean it up," Wayne Mayor Scott T. Rumana said Sunday.
Radar showed snow falling from eastern Virginia to Maine as the nor'easter crawled up the coast.
Whiteout conditions were reported around Philadelphia and Trenton, N.J., with northerly wind gusting to 40 mph.
Few people ventured out into the storm if they didn't have to.
"I'm just out to get some doughnuts and coffee, then I'm going right back home," said Chris Vasili of East Brunswick, N.J. "It's not too good out here right now."
Karen Gulley of Mansfield, Mass., took her two young children to Boston to visit the New England Aquarium, but their plans changed to snowman-building because of the storm.
"It's their favorite thing to do," Gulley said.
Emil Krupczyn, a mechanic for the U.S. Postal Service, didn't let the snow interfere with his 200-mile drive home to upstate New York from Manhattan, but he figured the journey would take about six hours.
"There's no rushing in this stuff and if you don't have no place to go, don't go," he said as he waited for a street to get plowed.
The possibility of coastal flooding was a major concern for Massachusetts, said Peter Judge, spokesman for the state's Emergency Management Agency. Meteorologists predicted 2 1/2-foot storm surges from Cape Ann to Cape Cod with seas off the coast running up to 25 feet.
More than 80,000 customers were without power in Maryland, according to Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. spokeswoman Linda Foy. She said it could be at least 24 hours before power is fully restored.
"It's taking us a long time to even get to the locations where we can begin the restoration process," Foy said.
Power also was out at thousands of homes and businesses in New Jersey, New York's Long Island and Connecticut.
Most airlines canceled all flights at LaGuardia Airport, some of them until Monday, said Steve Coleman, spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Hundreds of flights were canceled at Kennedy and Newark airports.
Delta said it also canceled Sunday arrivals and departures at Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Providence, R.I., and Hartford, Conn.
New Jersey Transit suspended all bus service statewide, although most rail service continued operating. Amtrak reported a few cancelations and delays but said most trains remained in service.
However, the storm was good news for ski resorts after an unseasonably warm January dragged down business.
"The best thing for us is it puts snow in customers' back yards and they think of snowboarding and down hill (skiing)," said Carol Lugar, president of Mohawk Mountain in Cornwall, Conn., which had up to 1 foot of snow by late Sunday morning.
"I personally love the snow," she said. "I like snow shoveling. If you shovel snow all winter you can paddle a kayak or canoe all summer."