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A Northeast blizzard for the books

Airports closed, supermarkets were jammed, and plows ruled the roads.

The East Coast - and much of the nation - is digging out from a storm cycle that in some regions could figure among the worst snowfalls of the past century.

What will undoubtedly be called the Blizzard of '05 -and become a new benchmark for winter irascibility - dumped up to three feet of snow in some parts of the Northeast and caused dangerously high winds, whiteout conditions, and some coastal flooding.

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It marked an exclamation point to a storm that began in Canada Saturday morning, moved across the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic, and then ended - with considerable hubris - in New England Sunday. While many Northeasterners awoke Sunday to a 12- to 24-inch blanket, residents here were not caught off guard. Meteorologists had been warning the nation of this storm, a series of quick-moving clippers, all week.

Thus both residents and city officials throughout the region were far more prepared than during some storms of the past: In Massachusetts, video and grocery stores were mobbed before snow began falling Saturday. Hundreds of snow plows and salt trucks were deployed. It helped, too, that the worst of the storm hit on the weekend, before the Monday rush hour.

Nonetheless, the storm disrupted travel across the Midwest and East Coast, with hundreds of flights canceled and some airports shut down. Indeed, for southern New England, expected to bear the brunt of the storm, this could prove to be among the worst residents have ever faced - and continues an onslaught of freakish weather that has hit the globe in the past month, from the tsunamis in Asia, to the mudslides in California, to this powerful nor'easter.

"For Boston and southern New England, it could rank within the top 10, if not top five, biggest storms in terms of snowfall," says Chris Vaccaro of the National Weather Service. It is being compared to Boston's blizzard of 1978, when 27.1 inches of snow immobilized the city.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney declared a state of emergency over the weekend, activating the National Guard in case residents in coastal areas needed to be evacuated. The US Coast Guard sent a jet over the North Atlantic, warning mariners of dangerous weather to come. They also broadcast a forecast of high winds and seas in advance.

A run on rock salt

Before even a snowflake fell Sunday in the Boston area, stores reported runs on snow shovels, snowblowers, rock salt, fireplace logs, mittens - even weird-looking earmuffs.

Movie renters mobbed a Hollywood Express in Somerville, Mass. - stocking up on two, three, and four movies a piece. At a Star Market in Cambridge, Mass., shoppers fought for food carts and queued up, sometimes impatiently, in checkout lines. One man remarked as he finally reached the cashier: "After all this, it had better snow."

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He need not have worried. Just hours later showers began falling up to two inches per hour in Massachusetts and other parts of New England. Some places, like Manhattan's Central Park, saw record snowfalls for that date.

In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, residents were urged to stay home during the worst hours of the storm. New York City canceled vacations for all sanitation employees and called workers in on their days off to help with snow removal.

While there were some deaths attributed to the storm, authorities say the early warnings and weekend arrival kept the fatalities far lower than they could have been. One man in Ohio died after he slipped through ice. On highways in Pennsylvania, police reported dozens of accidents.

Cold temperatures caused some troubles, too: Temperatures in Maine fell to record levels. It was 29 below in Bangor. Winds of some 50 m.p.h. pushed wind chill readings to 8 below zero in both New York and New Jersey.

Aside from taking out their snow shovels, though, many Americans seemed to enjoy the winter storm. In Shohola, Pa., where the two feet of snow is deeper than some dogs are tall, the blizzard was greeted as a welcome annual event that brings neighbors out of their winter doldrums. Liam O'Connor woke up and had one thought: "Beautiful, very pretty to look at." Then he headed for his snow shovel and blower.

By Sunday morning in Chicago, with just a few stray flakes adding to a foot of snow, runners, dog walkers, and kids reveled in the rare experience of pristine powder in Lincoln Park. "I kinda wait for a storm like this, just for the skiing part," says Brad Zoller, a pilot, as he breaks fresh tracks on his cross-country skis. "I love snow."

Nearby, a regular group of dogwalkers chat through scarves as their pets bound and chase snowballs. "She likes everything about the snow, the deeper the better," says Charlie, a middle-aged Chicagoan barely visible beneath his layers of clothes, as Genie, his saluki, frolics nearby. "She's from the desert, but you can't tell."

For those with sleds and skis, the snow provided a perfect playground, but not so for those with luggage. Across the country, frustrated travelers were delayed from reaching their travel destinations. Logan International Airport in Boston was still shut down Sunday morning. Philadelphia International Airport was shut for six hours Saturday. Airports were also temporarily closed in Hartford, Conn., and Westchester County, N.Y., while Chicago's O'Hare delayed hundreds of flights.

Storms of the past

As bad as the latest storm was, it doesn't compare to some in the past - and shows how far the nation has come in being able to cope with massive amounts of snow. One of the most infamous storms was the blizzard of 1888, when drifts crawled up to the second-floor windows in New York.

The city was completely cut off from the rest of the country. To get messages out, they had to use the transatlantic cable to send them to London first, so they could be rerouted to Boston. More than 400 people died, many because they were stranded in the freezing elevated trains.

That blizzard "is of almost folklorish interest to folks in the Northeast," says Randy Cerveny, a meteorologist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Staff writers Amanda Paulson in Chicago and Alexandra Marks in Shohola, Pa., contributed to this report. Wire service material was also used.