Washington shuts down as fierce snowstorm slams Midwest

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US government shut down on Wednesday ahead of a fierce snowstorm packing heavy, wet snow that had blanketed the Midwest, leaving thousands without power and forcing hundreds of flights to be cancelled.

Washington could get slammed by its biggest snowfall in as much as two years, with 15 cm to 30 cm expected after the storm moved eastward into the mid-Atlantic states, the National Weather Service said.

The government, already hit by US$85 billion () in overall budget cuts that took effect last Friday, ordered 375,000 federal workers in the Washington area to stay home.

Major school districts in the area also shut down ahead of the storm, which is packing winds of up to 56 km per hour.

Airlines cancelled about 1,500 flights, including about 700 at Washington's Reagan, Dulles and Baltimore/Washington airports. About 1,700 flights were called off on Tuesday as the storm moved across the north central United States.

The heavy, wet snow was expected to bring down power lines and tree limbs. About 54,000 Dominion Resources Inc customers were without power in Virginia, and American Electric Power Co Inc and FirstEnergy Corp reported 5,000 customers in West Virginia were in the dark.

The National Weather Service forecast heavy rains on the Atlantic coast. The New Jersey Office of Emergency Management said it was monitoring a coastal storm expected to bring heavy rain, high winds, snow and coastal flooding through Friday morning.

During the Tuesday evening rush hour, wind-whipped snow reduced visibility to less than 0.8 km and caused delays on roads.

Monique Bond, a spokeswoman with the Illinois State Patrol, said bad weather may have contributed to a deadly crash on Interstate Highway 70 in Marshall, Illinois, near the Indiana border.

A female driver heading east on I-70 crossed the median and crashed into a westbound tanker truck. The driver of the car and her young child died in the accident.

Southwest Airlines, which cancelled nearly 250 flights out of Chicago's Midway Airport, resumed flight operations on Tuesday evening, the city's aviation department said.