CHICAGO (Reuters) - A huge winter storm pummeled the United States on Wednesday, bringing parts of the Midwest to its knees, taking aim at the Northeast, and disrupting businesses, flights and other transport.
Major automakers shut down plants in six Midwestern states and Ontario, and were just a fraction of the commerce that felt the storm's wrath as many Americans chose to stay at home or were forced to by impassable roads.
Grain and livestock movement was paralyzed in many areas. Wheat prices rose on worries that extreme cold to follow the storm could damage crops. Citrus growers in south Texas also feared extensive damage from a hard freeze.
The storm, touching some 30 states and a third of the U.S. population, stretched from New Mexico to Maine as it moved rapidly toward the northeast where an ice storm wreaked havoc on New York City and threatened eastern Massachusetts .
But the huge two-day storm delivered its strongest punch to the Midwest, dumping as much as three inches (7.6 cm) of snow an hour on Chicago during most of the night along with winds of up to 40 miles per hour (65 kph).
"This is pretty unbelievable. I was around in '67 but this is really crazy," said John Paczesny, 48, a Chicago church maintenance worker and suburban firefighter, who was out shoveling snow Wednesday morning.
On Jan. 26-27, 1967, 23 inches of snow fell on Chicago, collapsing roofs and shutting down the city for days.
Just over 20 inches (54 cm) had piled up in Chicago by midday Wednesday. Snowfalls of a foot (30 cm) or more were recorded from Oklahoma City to Kansas City and Indianapolis.
The website flightaware.com, which tracks airline cancellation information, said more than 5,600 flights had been canceled in the United States so far on Wednesday. That followed thousands of flight cancellations on Tuesday.
"We're totally out of Chicago today; 920 cancellations in and out," said American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith.
President Barack Obama got a briefing on the storm's impact, and stressed the need for coordination at all levels of government to help states with the aftermath.
Power was out for more than 375,000 customers from Texas to New England, and into Canada.
The Texas power grid operator imposed rolling blackouts as frigid weather swept across the state, leaving 3 million homes temporarily without electricity.
Oklahoma's governor asked the White House to approve an emergency disaster declaration request, a move that would help cash-strapped local governments cover some of the expenses associated with responding to the storm.
Treacherous ice, rather than deep snow, hit New York City and parts of the East Coast.
The heavily used commuter rail service between New Jersey and New York was suspended due to ice buildup on the overhead power lines, authorities said. Public transportation in other major cities, including Boston, was also disrupted.
But Wall Street trading was not affected by the storm as exchanges opened on time and many traders worked from home. Equities trading volume through midday was in line with an average to slightly below-average day.
Major interstate highways in the Plains and Midwest were closed and a state of emergency was declared across the area.
Major railroads, including Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC, Norfolk Southern Corp and CSX Corp, which transport goods from coal to fertilizer to forest products across the United States, said snow and ice was slowing them down.
"The impact is widespread, just as the weather conditions are," said BNSF spokesman Steven Forsberg.
Norfolk Southern and CSX warned customers with shipments moving through the Midwest to expect delays of up to 48 hours and potential routing changes as well.
'HISTORIC STORM' IN CHICAGO
In the Northeast, the storm was expected to dump 12-18 inches (30-45 cm) of snow on Boston through Wednesday, and in places turn into a more dangerous wintry mix.
The National Weather Service warned of a dangerous "flash freeze" for most of eastern Massachusetts as temperatures dropped rapidly Wednesday afternoon. Drivers and walkers were urged to use extra caution.
"The thing we're most fearful of is freezing rain. It could turn the roads into ice rinks pretty quickly," said Peter Judge, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman.
Boston's Logan International Airport was closed to most flights.
Chicago's two major airports canceled a combined 2,000 flights, the city's Department of Aviation said. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, the second busiest in the United States after Atlanta, was open again by late Wednesday to limited traffic.
Chicago's Lake Shore Drive along Lake Michigan, the city's main north-south thoroughfare, was shut down by waist-deep snow drifts and littered with over 200 abandoned cars. Side streets were impassable, and even plowed arterial streets and highways were eerily empty.
At least 1,500 motorists were stranded throughout Illinois, about 900 of them in the Chicago area, by drifting snow, accidents and blinding winds, state police said.
National Guard troops were activated to help out with the rescue efforts, said Captain Scott Compton of the Illinois state police in Springfield.
The third biggest city in the United States could end up with the largest snowfall since 1967, Chicago officials said on Wednesday afternoon as the snow finally started to tail off and the sun broke through.
A few brave souls were out and about in downtown Chicago.
"I had to shovel a path to the front gate but that wasn't too bad and I'm only 3 blocks from the 'L' and it was working," said Robin DeRossa, an employee with Volt, a staffing agency. "You get a lot more done when no one else is in the office."
WHEAT, LIVESTOCK, CITRUS
As the blizzard moved northeast, a dangerous deep freeze followed in its wake from Montana and the mountain states through the Plains and south to Oklahoma.
The storm wreaked havoc on agricultural operations, threatening the dormant winter wheat crop and livestock, and slowing the processing and transportation of agricultural commodities.
Forecaster Accuweather said some winter wheat crops in the Plains states were at risk from cold weather, while those in the Midwest at least had an protective blanket of snow.
Texas, the second largest U.S. producer of grapefruit and the third largest of Valencia oranges, braced for crop damage from the cold that could push fruit prices higher at the grocery store.
"We're pretty much going to concede that we will probably lose the rest of the fruit crop," said Ted Prukop of Texas Citrus Mutual.
SPRING AROUND THE CORNER?
But -- for those who believe in such things -- a rodent predicted on Wednesday that a particularly tough winter will be over soon.
The most famous groundhog in the United States, Punxsutawney Phil, emerged from a tree stump at dawn and, unusually, did not see his shadow, signaling that spring is just around the corner, according to tradition.
The rodent's "prognostication" each Feb. 2 is an annual tradition that was brought to the United States by German immigrants, and is now watched by thousands of people who trek to a Pennsylvania hillside to witness the ceremony.
If the groundhog is judged to see its shadow, tradition holds that there will be six more weeks of winter.
(Additional reporting by Jon Hurdle in Philadelphia, Ryan Vlastelica and Ellen Wulfhorst in New York, Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Jim Forsyth in Texas and Pav Jordan in Toronto; Writing by Ros Krasny; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jackie Frank)