NEW YORK (AP) -- A fierce storm that had been predicted for days caught much of the East Coast off guard today, tearing through with lightning, thunder and tons of wet snow, stranding thousands of road, rail and air travelers, and leaving more than 400,000 customers around the nation's capital without power.
The storm had been forecast as dumping up to a foot of snow on parts of the region but far surpassed that in spots. New York got 19 inches, Philadelphia 17. Public schools closed for a second day today, including the nation's largest system in New York City, and motorists were warned to stay off slick roads.
"What a mess," said Andy Kolstad, a 65-year-old federal statistician from Silver Spring, Md., as he walked to a Washington metro subway station because there was no bus service. His uphill hike took him half an hour. "There was no point in staying home because I couldn't have breakfast in the dark," he said.
The region has already been pummeled by winter not even halfway into the season. About 19 inches of snow fell on New York City atop the 36 inches it had already seen so far this winter; the city typically sees just 21 inches for the whole season.
At his home in Gap, Pa., 45-year-old Chuck DeSeantis lamented what lay ahead of him after a treacherous commute today: shoveling cars out of snow at the Nissan dealership where he's a sales manager.
"Normally it is a 15-minute commute; now it will probably take an hour to hour and a half to get there," he said. "I'll dig out my three cars here, and then I'll dig out 350 cars at the dealership."
In Massachusetts, travel was made trickier with high winds. Gusts of 46 mph were reported in Hyannis, 45 mph in Rockport and 49 mph on Nantucket early Thursday. In Lynn, Mass., heavy snow collapsed a garage roof and briefly trapped two men inside before they were rescued safely. Some other workers escaped.
New York declared a weather emergency for the second time since the Dec. 26 storm, which trapped hundreds of buses and ambulances and caused a political crisis for the mayor. An emergency declaration means any car blocking roads or impeding snowplows can be towed at the owner's expense.
The city shuttered schools and some government offices, and federal courts in Manhattan closed. Even the Statue of Liberty shut down for snow removal. New York's Long Island Rail Road, the nation's largest commuter rail line, operated on a reduced schedule. At busy Penn Station, about half the trains listed on the Amtrak departure board were delayed or canceled.
Two major New York-area airports, LaGuardia and Kennedy, were closed but expected to reopen later in the day as cleanup continued. About 1,500 passengers were stranded overnight at Philadelphia International Airport, according to spokeswoman Victoria Lupica.
Northeast of New York in New Canaan, Conn., a Metro-North commuter train ran off the tracks, suspending service. Its two passengers and crew members were not injured.
Residents hunkered down as the storm brought snow, sleet, and then more snow, accompanied by lightning and thunder in a phenomenon called "thundersnow." About 17 inches fell in Philadelphia overnight.
The Philadelphia area's transit agency, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, suspended nearly all bus service, and road crews worked through the night to gets tons of snow off major arteries.
Nine passengers spent the night on board a bus that got stranded in the city's West Oak Lane neighborhood, spokeswoman Heather Redfern said.
"I imagine they thought they were better off staying on the warm bus rather than getting off, since they didn't have a place to stay," Redfern said. The passengers had all disembarked by 7:30 a.m.
More than 15,000 people lost power in the Philadelphia area, with thousands more in the dark in New Jersey and the New York area.
Crashed, spun-out or disabled cars littered highways. More than 250 cars were disabled on New Jersey highways since Wednesday. Officials in the mid-Atlantic region worked to remove dozens of cars and tractor-trailers abandoned by motorists at the height of the storm.
Maryland State Highway Administration spokeswoman Kim Frum said crews plowed around abandoned vehicles and got tow trucks to move them. Firefighters in the Washington area warned that the heavy snow was bringing down power lines.
After arriving in Washington from Manitowoc, Wis., President Barack Obama couldn't fly on the helicopter that normally takes him home to the White House from a nearby military base. Instead, a motorcade had to snake through Wednesday evening rush hour traffic already slowed by snow and ice.
One person died after a tree fell on a pickup truck in Washington. Several others in the truck were injured. A woman on New York's Long Island was killed when a plow truck backed into her in a parking lot.
Since Dec. 14, snow has fallen eight times on the New York region -- or an average of about once every five days. Much of the Northeast is in a similar boat, resigned to repeated storms as a weather phenomenon off the coast called the North Atlantic Oscillation creates older air and drops more snow than usual.
"I just want the snow to stop. I want the sun again. I want to feel just a little bit of warmth," commuter Elliott Self said after leaving an elevated train in Philadelphia on Wednesday.