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Winter storm lashes eastern U.S., threatens Thanksgiving travel

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A powerful winter storm dumped heavy rain and snow over much of the eastern United States on Tuesday, threatening to snarl travel plans for millions over the busy Thanksgiving holiday, forecasters said.

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The Atlantic coast into New England will be drenched with 2 to 4 inches of rain by late on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, as the storm moves northeast out of the South, said Bruce Terry, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service.

To the west, freezing rain will coat the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia and West Virginia. More than a foot of snow could fall in western Pennsylvania, western New York and Vermont before skies clear on Thursday.

The rain and snow will be followed by winds in the northeastern United States of 15 to 25 miles per hour, with higher gusts, and temperatures below freezing, Terry said.

"We've got everything with this - real heavy rains, (at) the lower elevations a band of freezing rain, heavy snows and then behind it, wind," he said.

He added that travel conditions could be "very treacherous" in areas of heavy snow.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a winter weather warning. He urged motorists to use extreme caution and ordered state agencies to be ready to clear roadways as quickly as possible.

The Thanksgiving holiday is one of the busiest travel times in the United States. Some 39 million people are expected to travel by road from Wednesday to Sunday, centering on Thanksgiving Day, travel group AAA has said.

Eighty-seven U.S. flights had been called off on Tuesday, with the most at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, according to FlightAware.com, which tracks delays and cancellations.

At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest, Michelle Duncan, a 26-year-old graduate student from Chicago, arrived to spend Thanksgiving with a friend surprised to find her trip had been relatively hassle-free.

"I'm sure tomorrow it's going to be chaos," she said.

High winds could ground the giant character balloons in the Macy's Inc Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. City regulations bar the huge balloons from flying when sustained winds top 23 miles per hour (37 km per hour), and gusts exceed 34 mph.

The storm is combining with a cold front that dropped temperatures to minus 3 Fahrenheit (minus 19.4C) at Saranac Lake, New York, the coldest spot in the contiguous United States on Monday.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson, Paul Thomasch and David Beasley; Editing by Scott Malone, Maureen Bavdek and Krista Hughes)

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