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WEATHER EXTREMES // It's beginning to look a lot like ... spring?

As they basked in sunny, mid-60s temperatures last weekend, folks in New England and the mid-Atlantic states were convinced that spring had finally arrived. Opening day of the baseball season was right around the corner, and flowers were blooming from Maryland to Maine.

April Fool's Day put an end to that: On Tuesday, more than 400,000 customers across the region were left without power and airports were closed as stunned residents began digging out from nearly 3 feet of snow dumped by a howling Nor'easter. At least three deaths were blamed on the powerful weather system, which began hammering the area Monday.

In Boston, bus service was halted for the first time in two decades and subways shuddered to a halt as well. Massachusetts Gov. William Weld declared a state of emergency. The freakish storm system was expected to blow off to sea by today, but state officials feared that a return of mid-60s temperatures by the end of the week could create yet another problem with massive flooding.

"You want bizarre? This is bizarre," said Joe Milano, owner of the Union Oyster House, nation's oldest, continuously open restaurant.

Milano offered complimentary bowls of steaming clam chowder to those hearty few who ventured outside to clean up the city's third heaviest snowfall ever. But as ice and snow continued to block local roads, he decided to close early and give his help the night off.

"You can't imagine what it's like to get 25 inches of snow in less than 12 hours, which is what happened here," Milano added.

National weather forecasters said the storm system resulted from a collision between the balmy weather the area enjoyed on Easter and a mass of cold air streaming down from southern Canada. The greater the contrast in temperatures, they said, the greater chance there is for a storm to pummel a region with rain, sleet and snow. Although New York City was spared major damage, shock effects were felt as far south as Baltimore, where 5 inches of snow and a blast of windy, arctic air Tuesday forced the Baltimore Orioles to cancel their opening game.

Elsewhere, the problems were more elemental: More than 245,000 homes lost power in Massachusetts, along with an estimated 100,000 in upper New York state, 85,000 in Connecticut and 14,000 customers in Philadelphia. Power lines were down across the area, and up to 35 inches of snow were reported in western Massachusetts and the Catskills. The New Hampshire legislature closed, and ferry service was halted between Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.

Wind gusts of up to 50 mph were reported across New England and upstate New York, and icy road conditions made driving hazardous from the Canadian border to New Jersey and as far west as Pennsylvania. Although many schools were already closed for spring break, thousands of others joined them.

The storm was especially hard on travelers as both Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn., and Logan International Airport in Boston closed, stranding travelers.

But even as winds howled and snow fell, there was a trace of spring in the air. By midday Tuesday, sunny skies had returned to much of the northeast and temperatures inched above 40 degrees.

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