A fearsome storm spread a smothering shroud of white over nearly half the nation Wednesday, snarling transportation from Oklahoma to New England, burying parts of the Midwest under 2 feet of snow and laying down dangerously heavy ice in the Northeast that was too much for some buildings to bear.
Tens of millions of people stayed home. The hardy few who ventured out faced howling winds that turned snowflakes into face-stinging needles. Chicago's 20.2 inches was the city's third-largest amount on record. In New York's Central Park, the pathways resembled skating rinks.
The storm that resulted from two clashing air masses was, if not unprecedented, extraordinarily rare for its size and ferocious strength. "A storm that produces a swath of 20-inch snow is really something we'd see once every 50 years — maybe," National Weather Service meteorologist Thomas Spriggs said.
Although skies were beginning to clear by midafternoon over much of the nation's midsection, the storm promised to leave a blast of bitter cold in its wake. Overnight temperatures in the upper Midwest were expected to fall to minus 5 to minus 20, with wind chills as low as minus 30.
The system was blamed for the death of at least a dozen people, including a homeless man who burned to death on New York's Long Island as he tried to light cans of cooking fuel and a woman in Oklahoma City who was killed while being pulled behind a truck on a sled that hit a guard rail.
Airport operations slowed to a crawl nationwide, and flight cancellations reached 13,000 for the week. A massive post-Christmas blizzard led to about 10,000 cancellations.
In the winter-weary Northeast, thick ice collapsed several structures, including a gas station canopy on Long Island and an airplane hangar and garages near Boston.
In Middletown, Conn., the entire third floor of a building failed, littering the street with bricks and snapping two trees.