WASHINGTON – The eastern U.S. was hit with a frightful wintry storm Saturday that dumped more than a foot of snow in some areas, hampering travelers heading home and likely deterring shoppers on the weekend before Christmas.
Forecasts called for up to 20 inches of snow across the region, including Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and reaching up to New York. About 16 inches fell west of Charlottesville, Va., the National Weather Service said.
Snowplows cleared the runway at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Washington as President Barack Obama returned from climate talks in Copenhagen after the snow had started falling. The White House said Obama rode in a motorcade back to the White House, instead of taking his helicopter, because of the conditions.
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Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty declared a snow emergency for the city starting Saturday morning. Philadelphia also declared a snow emergency and the school district canceled all weekend activities. At daybreak there was a light dusting of snow in Philadelphia.
Forecasters said the storm system was expected to generate winds up to 35 miles per hour, which could cause near-whiteout conditions.
People stocked up on groceries and other staples Friday after the National Weather Service issued storm warnings from the Carolinas to Rhode Island.
In southern West Virginia, Ron Hart's hardware store was swamped as customers bought heaters and other emergency supplies, just a week after a wind storm knocked out electricity and spawned an earlier emergency shopping surge.
"People are having to spend money on bare essentials versus Christmas," Hart said. "Our Christmas sales are considerably down because of what people are having to buy."
Forecasters said it could be the most snow in the nation's capital since a February 2003 storm dumped nearly 27 inches at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Officials at Dulles International and Reagan National airports warned travelers to check on the status of their flights before heading to the airports. Some Saturday flights along the East coast were canceled ahead of the weather.
Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm. State Police responded to hundreds of accidents statewide as snow accumulated on interstates and rural roads.
Snow, ice and freezing rain socked western North Carolina on Friday, knocking out power to almost 60,000 customers around the Asheville area.
Jim Weintraub, owner of Ace Hardware in Asheville, N.C., said he picked up 1,500 pounds of rock salt Friday morning. An hour and a half later, "I'm just about out," he said.
But customers were thinking fun, too.
"I've been told we're the only store around with sleds," Weintraub said. "As I was driving back up to the store, my wife was calling me and saying, 'Where are you? People are waiting for sleds!'"
After a warm start to the ski season that delayed openings of many resorts, the storm arrived just in time for Winterplace Ski Resort's season debut Friday in southern West Virginia.
"It's perfect timing," said Winterplace President Terry Pfeiffer. "With the new snow coming in, there's not going to be much better skiing."
The Coast Guard sent an airplane to fly from North Carolina to New Jersey warning boaters by radio to stay in port if they didn't have an urgent need to be on the water.
Highway crews in Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia were spraying brine on heavily traveled roads to help prevent snow and ice from sticking.
Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Romero said the railway was putting extra crews on duty, in part to keep ice from forming on the overhead lines that power electric trains. Extra locomotives equipped with snow plows would also be available.
The storm came from the Gulf and drenched South Florida with rain starting late Thursday, leaving flooded homes and stranded drivers.
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