WASHINGTON – The federal government was closed Monday after a record-breaking snowstorm swept across the northeastern United States and put a damper on one of the biggest shopping weekends of the year.
Just days before Christmas, the eastern seaboard from North Carolina to New England was digging out from the worst blizzard in years, which closed train and bus service, paralyzed air traffic, crippled motorists and left hundreds of thousands of residents without power in some areas.
Americans pining for a white Christmas got more than they bargained for, with local officials urging residents to hunker down indoors as record snowfall wreaked havoc on roadways.
Special: Get Sarah Palin’s New Book – Incredible FREE Offer -- Click Here Now.
And with the roads and transportation in disarray, many churches canceled Sunday services and some schools planned closures ahead of the December 25 holiday.
Commuters faced uncertainty on Monday, as the region struggled to clear persistent snow and ice. Federal agencies and local jurisdictions were closed, with all workers except emergency employees excused from work.
In Washington, crews worked throughout the night to restore service to the Metrorail system, de-icing tracks and digging train cars out of the snow in rail yards.
The storm was a blow to the already reeling retail sector, which had been counting on cash registers ringing loudly on "Super Saturday" — traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year — to make up for weeks of lackluster sales.
"I think we can safely say that sales in the Washington region we're crippled," National Retail Federation vice president Ellen Davis told AFP.
Davis, whose industry group represents retailers across the United States, said because of the inclement weather, "people weren't eating at restaurants, there wasn't any impulse buying."
The last Saturday before Christmas usually rakes in some 15 billion dollars of all nationwide sales. Shoppers seeking to make up for lost time in the Northeast — home to around a quarter of the US population — found more closed stores, unplowed roads and limited transportation options on Sunday.
Airports in the Washington area, which woke up Sunday swathed in a deep white blanket under clear skies, limped back to operation and said it would take some time to reestablish normalcy.
"It's going to take a few days for the airlines to re-book everybody, so if anybody was planning to travel, they really need to check with their airline before they head out to the airport," said spokeswoman Courtney Mickalonis at Ronald Reagan National Airport.
The storm brought chaos to the annual year-end holiday travel season that officially began Saturday and lasts two weeks, through the New Year holiday.
As the monster storm barreled northward, the National Weather Service said snow across the Mid-Atlantic and New England states was slowly tapering off as it moved away from the coast.
Blizzard and winter storm warnings were discontinued after the weather system dumped over two feet (61 centimeters) in some parts of Virginia, West Virginia, New Jersey and New York.
The storm at one point stretched some 500 miles (800 kilometers) across 14 states, affecting tens of millions of Americans.
The weather service said it was the heaviest snow storm ever to hit the US capital in December. A total of 16 inches (41 cm) accumulated in Washington, where snow does not usually fall until January or later, if at all.
Three people died on Virginia roads Saturday as some 3,000 accidents shut down interstate highways for several hours, according to the state's department of emergency management. The Virginia Department of Health confirmed one other storm-related death.
Bus service around the region was severely hampered, and suspended in places, hours after the storm had passed.
"There are huge piles of snow lining the edges of streets and blocking the bus stops," said John Catoe, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
Rather than deferring their holiday purchases, Davis said, resourceful shoppers likely would try to make up for lost time in the final few shopping days before Christmas, which falls on Friday.
"You might see more people choose to purchase gift cards," she said.
"I would imagine there were people online all day yesterday as opposed to being out" at the shopping malls.