Americans begin digging out as historic blizzard winds down

A woman digging her car out from under heavy snow in Falls Church, Virginia, on Jan 23, 2016.
A woman digging her car out from under heavy snow in Falls Church, Virginia, on Jan 23, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - A massive blizzard that claimed at least 16 lives in the eastern United States finally appeared to be winding down on Sunday (Jan 24), giving snowbound residents the chance to begin digging out.

The near-record snowstorm clobbered the eastern United States on Friday and Saturday, shutting down New York and Washington and affecting some 85 million residents.

More than 4,400 flights were cancelled, airports in New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore ground to a halt, the US capital shut down transport and America's most populous city banned travel.

The 16 fatalities occurred in Arkansas, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia, while more than 200,000 people were left without power and 2,200 National Guard personnel were drafted in.

Forecasters said the storm - dubbed "Snowzilla" - dumped 56cm of snow in Washington. The 64cm of snow that fell in New York's Central Park, was the third highest accumulation since records began in 1869.

With the storm tapering off overnight, officials in New York planned to lift a travel ban at 7am Sunday (8pm Singapore time) - restoring access to roads throughout the city, and in Long Island and New Jersey.

"You never like to disrupt transportation and commerce. However, the storm was fast and furious," said New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. "This is a storm that is nothing to be trifled with."

Strong winds raised concerns of flooding for much of the east coast, the National Weather Service warned, with streets in some New Jersey coastal towns filled with water and ice.

In New York, bus services were suspended and overland commuter and subway trains were shut as Broadway cancelled performances, museums closed, shops shuttered and the region's pro sports teams rescheduled matches.

Metro and bus networks were shut down in Washington for the entire weekend, and largely shut in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Thousands of motorists were stranded for hours on highways further south.

The vast majority of flights were cancelled across much of the region, but authorities said they were working around the clock to restore operations on Sunday, with the first arrivals and departures expected at midday in New York.

Plows struggled to clear streets, where parked cars were buried under the snow and visibility worsened on Saturday as night fell and howling winds created massive snowdrifts.

Reagan National and Dulles International airports in the US capital were expected to remain closed through Sunday.

Officials said the storm, which forecasters predicted would end by early Sunday in the Washington area, could cause more than US$1 billion (S$1.43 billion) in damage.

Amid the hardship there was a moment of levity provided by Tian Tian, the baby panda at the National Zoo in Washington. Footage of the panda rolling in the snow quickly went viral.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican presidential contender, left the campaign trail to oversee the emergency response in his snowbound state, where he said there were 90,000 power outages.

"For folks who lose power, please, given how cold the weather is, try to go and shelter in the home of a friend or family member if you can. Don't stay in the cold," he told a news conference.

Nearly 120,000 power outages were reported in North Carolina, emergency officials said.

In Washington the national monuments, Capitol building and Smithsonian museum were all closed.

Even a massive snowball fight in Washington's Dupont Circle, which 3,000 people said on Facebook they would attend, was postponed until Sunday due to the storm's ferocity.

"We just came back from some holidays in India so the weather is a difficult adjustment," said Mr Justin Wilcox, 32, out taking selfies in the capital.

Snow and sleet also hit the southern states of Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia - unusual for the region.