JOHN BACON - USA TODAY
McLEAN, Va. -- A powerful winter storm swept in from the Midwest on Wednesday, pounding parts of Virginia and Maryland and knocking out power, closing schools and straining the nation's air travel system for a third straight day.
Parts of Virginia already were blanketed by more than a foot of snow by early afternoon, although Washington, D.C., had slipped by with little more than wet streets from a snow-rain mix.
Still, the National Weather Service warned that the city and its suburbs could see 4 to 8 inches before the storm passes Wednesday night.
"The forecast still has us going over to all snow in the city, but we are not sure how much precipitation will be left to accumulate at that time," weather service spokesman Chris Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro said the initial storm had hit 16 states and had joined up with a new weather system that formed off the Virginia coast. "One storm is passing the baton to another storm, and it all adds up to the biggest storm in more than two years" for the area, he said.
High winds were adding to the havoc -- and to the threat of power outages.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency, saying more than 12 inches of snow had fallen by late morning in several locations along the Interstate 81 corridor. Approximately 170,000 utility customers were without power in Virginia, he said.
Dominion Virginia Power, which serves about 2.4 million customers in Virginia and North Carolina, had 102,264 customers without power, spokesman Karl Neddenien said.
"The storm is still coming in," he said. "We expect the outage numbers to increase a little bit before we can bring them back down."
Outside a McDonald's in Charlottesville, Va., about two hours from Washington, snow was piing up and power was spotty. The University of Virginia shut down for the day. But the restaurant was open, and about 20 to 25 customers were inside.
"It's business as usual here," said manager Debra Stinnie. "People are out and about because they don't have power."
Virginia State Police said they responded to more than 200 motor vehicle crashes over an eight-hour period and received hundreds of other calls.
Federal offices were closed and school was canceled for hundreds of thousands of kids in the region. More than 1,900 flights were canceled Wednesday, raising to almost 4,100 the number of flights that have been canceled across much of the nation since the storm began its eastern march, the tracker FlightStats reported.
At Reagan National Airport, the cavernous main terminal was nearly empty Wednesday. Airlines began notifying passengers of mass cancellations long before the bad weather arrived, yet a few anxious passengers showed up anyway hoping for better news.
Joe Swiderski and Daniel Linary, 20-year-old sophomores at Broward College in Florida, just wrapped up a three-day tour of Washington. Their 10:30 a.m. flight to Fort Lauderdale was canceled, and they were rebooked on an 8 p.m. flight.
"We have a long wait, I guess,'' Swiderski said. "We were told there is a big shopping mall nearby, so we're headed there for a while. We'll see how it goes.''
In Washington, D.C., the storm still had brought mostly rain by early afternoon. In Northwest Washington, a usually clogged commuter route leading to three city schools, American University and connections to the Washington Beltway was deserted Wednesday morning.
The mix of rain and wet, dense snow meant the large green space between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, usually filled with tourists even on cold days, was nearly deserted.
But the weather didn't stop Marianne McGhee, 51, and her mother Sally Madrid, 78, both of Cheyenne, Wyo., from walking around the National Mall. The two are visiting for a week while McGhee, an auditor for the Wyoming National Guard, takes a class. Her course was canceled Wednesday.
"We like the snow," said Madrid as large snowflakes melted onto her face and glasses. "We thought it'd be fun to be out in it. I was kind of shocked that you guys canceled everything. They would never ever have in Wyoming with weather like this."
McGhee said the two wanted to escape their hotel. "We had to go out and do something," she said.
The storm dropped up to 10 inches on the Chicago area Tuesday, but by Wednesday airports and major roads were back to normal. The Cincinnati area, relatively spared, was digging out after anywhere from 3 to 7 inches.
The storm will sweep north into New Jersey and New York by Thursday, but shouldn't drop too much snow as it moves through the region, Vaccaro said.
However, current weather models have it stalling when it reaches the Atlantic, which could mean longer snowfall in New England.
"This evening and throughout the day tomorrow we are looking at the New York City area getting 2 to 4 inches of wet snow and gusty winds," Vaccaro said. "It will be a glancing blow."
Contributing: Kevin Johnson; Yamiche Alcindor; Cathy Lynn Grossman; Ben Mutzabaugh; Natalie DiBlasio; Associated Press