A massive storm billed as the worst in decades barreled toward the northeast Wednesday, leaving vast swaths from Chicago to New York paralyzed by snow and ice, stranding hundreds of motorists all night and shuttering airports and schools.
Chicago had 19.5 inches of snow, ranking the storm the third-largest on record to hit the city with still more possible. As much as 1 1/2 feet fell in Missouri, more than a foot dropped on northern Indiana and southeast Kansas, and Oklahoma saw up to a foot.
Spots in northern New York also had more than a foot of snow by Wednesday morning. New York City was expected to get up to three-quarters of an inch of ice by midday before the mix of sleet and freezing rain warms up to rain.
Forecasters warned ice accumulations could knock down some tree limbs and power lines across the storm's more than 2,000-mile path. Ice also could affect transit service, even as plow drivers struggled to keep up with the snow on many roads.
In New York, Mike Schumaker already was into his fourth hour of what he predicted would be a 24-hour plowing marathon as he cleared snow from a suburban Albany gas station around 5 a.m. Wednesday.
"I figure I'll be going to about 1 or 2 in the morning. That's my guess," said the 42-year-old private contractor from Latham.
"It's not so much about plowing as it is about to where to put it," he said. "We still have snow from Christmas that hasn't melted."
In Chicago, the city closed public schools for the first time in 12 years and shut down Lake Shore Drive, where hundreds of motorists were stranded for 12 hours after multiple car accidents on the iconic roadway.
Bulldozers moved snow away from an estimated hundreds of cars that remained buried up to their roofs Wednesday morning, after drivers had been rescued. Only then could tow trucks move in. A shuttle bus sat abandoned with its door open, letting snow blow inside and build up on the driver's seat as the radio continued to transmit.
Raymond Orozco, chief of staff to Mayor Richard Daley, said motorist rescue efforts had been "severely hampered" by snow drifts, high winds and white-out conditions.
Jenny Theroux, 23, told the Associated Press she was stranded from 4 p.m. Tuesday until about 4 a.m. Wednesday. Stranded just 800 feet from an exit, she repeatedly called the city for information.
"It was a very stressful experience toward the end, especially not knowing what's going on," Theroux said, after abandoning her car. "I'm just very confused as to why it all transpired this way."
Not only was driving dicey, but flying in and out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport _ a major U.S. hub _ won't be possible until Thursday. The decision by O'Hare-based airlines to cancel all their flights for a day and a half was certain to have ripple effects, said transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman.
"Effectively shutting down America's most important aviation hub hits the system immeasurably hard," he said of O'Hare. The city's smaller airport, Midway International, also abandoned hopes of resuming flights Wednesday and said operations would be on hold until Thursday.
Boston's Logan Airport also closed but was expected to re-open later Wednesday morning.
More than 5,300 flights have been canceled Wednesday as of 10 a.m., according to flight tracking service FlightAware.
By 9:30 a.m., the nation's airlines had cancelled more than 5,200 flights _ or more than 16 percent of the day's scheduled traffic, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.com. That came a day after airlines grounded 12,630 flights due to the storm.
More than 200,000 homes and businesses in Ohio began Wednesday without power, while in excess of 100,000 customers had no electricity in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which were hit with mostly freezing rain and ice. Rolling blackouts were in Texas, including Super Bowl host city Dallas.
Outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a crew preparing to clear ice from the city's sidewalks sat in their van warming up before sunrise Wednesday.
One complained that getting to work _ even for him _ had been treacherous.
"Walking was terrible," said Rob Jones, 20, of Cenova Snow & Ice Solutions "I slid all the way down my street."
Federal Emergency Management Agency director Craig Fugate said the agency is on standby with generators, food, water and other supplies to help state and local authorities.
"The real heroes are these local responders going out in the storms and still rescuing people," he told ABC's "Good Morning America."
In Oklahoma, rescue crews and the National Guard searched overnight for any motorists who might be stranded along its major highways after whiteouts shut down Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
For those who insisted on braving the elements, the risks were many. "If you don't have enough fuel in your vehicle, you can run out, the heat goes out _ and people can even freeze to death," said Greg Cohen, executive director of the Roadway Safety Foundation.
The storm's powerful punch came from cold air that swept down from Canada, clashing with warm, moist air coming up from the south, explained National Weather Service meteorologist Gino Izzo.
The most dramatic illustration could be seen earlier this week in Texas, when one part of the state reported temperatures in the single digits and another part had temperatures in the 70s with near tropical humidity, Izzo said.
"That was the breeding ground for this storm," he said.
Cities across middle America shut down hours ahead of the snow. Scores of schools, colleges and government offices canceled activities or decided not to open at all. Thousands of flights were canceled across the nation.
The NFL did manage to stick to its Super Bowl schedule, holding media activities at Cowboys Stadium in suburban Arlington as planned, though the city's ice-covered streets were deserted.
Even Chicago _ with its legions of snowplows and its usual confidence in the face of winter storms that would surely crush other cities _ bent under the storm's weight.
"This is nothing to play with here," said Edward Butler, a lakefront doorman peering through his building's glass doors at snow blowing horizontally and in small cyclones down the street. "This is gale force wind."
The wind gusts were strong enough to start the building's heavy revolving door spinning by itself.
Many businesses in the city planned to remain shuttered Wednesday, as did cultural attractions and universities.
Some parents were glad the city took the rare step of closing schools in a city that is normally proud of shouldering the worst Mother Nature has to offer.
"They should cancel," said Sunjay Shah, 54, a sundries shop manager stranded at a downtown hotel overnight, saying his 17-year-old son was thrilled with the snow day. "How are students going to walk or take trains (to class)?"
Providing a ray of hope to those battered by the storm, the world's most famous weather forecaster _ with four legs _ predicted an early spring.
Punxsutawney Phil's handlers told Groundhog Day revelers at Gobbler's Knob, a tiny hill in Punxsutawney, Pa., that the groundhog had not seen his shadow, meaning winter will end within six weeks, according to tradition.
Associated Press writers Karen Hawkins, Don Babwin, Sophia Tareen, Tammy Webber and Barbara Rodriguez and photographer Kii Sato in Chicago; Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind.; Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee; Ken Miller in Oklahoma City; Patrick Walters in Philadelphia; Chris Carola in Albany, N.Y.; Jim Salter in St. Louis; and Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa, Okla., contributed to this report.