Snowstorm marches into Mid-Atlantic region

Updated 5:26 PM ET

WASHINGTON A winter storm marched into the Mid-Atlantic region Wednesday, dumping nearly two feet of snow in some places and knocking out power to about 250,000 homes and businesses. It largely spared the nation's capital, which was expecting much worse and had all but shut down because of dire forecasts.

Washington officials didn't want a repeat of 2011, when a rush-hour snowstorm stranded commuters for hours, so they told people to stay off the roads and gave workers the day off. Dubbed the "snowquester," the storm closed government offices, just as the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester were expected to do.

The storm pummeled the nation's midsection on Tuesday, killing at least four people in weather-related traffic accidents. It was forecast to head to the northeast on Thursday, bringing strong winds, more snow and the possibility of coastal flooding to New England.

CBS News congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes reports the House of Representatives had moved up the rest of this week's votes to Wednesday morning to allow members to try to get out of town for the weekend by the afternoon.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell told state agencies to let employees work from home and later declared a state of emergency. About 50 National Guard soldiers were sent to central and northern parts of the state to help. Utility crews scrambled to restore power after fierce wind and heavy, wet snow snapped tree limbs and knocked out electricity to 170,000 customers in that state alone. Hundreds of car wrecks were reported but there were no deaths.

In Richmond, most commuters appeared to be headed home by midday with the exception of Clint Davis, an attorney who was needed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

"Unless they cancelled court, I had to be here," said Davis, who was wearing a hooded slicker over his suit to shield himself from gobs of snow blown from trees. "I'll be here for two or three hours and come out to a snow-covered car."

The streets in the nation's capital were also quiet. The threat of up to 10 inches of snow prompted federal offices in Washington and schools across the region to close. Commuter trains were canceled or on an abbreviated schedule, but by midday, the forecast for snow had been lowered and much of it melted away.

The National Weather Service canceled a winter storm warning for the district. The warnings are issued to alert the public to the possibility of severe conditions. A winter weather advisory, which warns of periods of snow that will likely causing travel difficulties, remained in effect for the area.

Outside the district, towns at higher elevations were getting socked, CBS News' Tara Mergener reports from Washington. As much as 2 feet of wet, heavy snow was forecast for Leesburg, Va.

The Maryland Transportation Authority announced about 2:30 p.m. that it closed its Bay Bridge that crosses over the Chesapeake Bay in both directions due to high winds.

The storm dubbed the "snowquester" — after the wonky "sequester" term for $85 billion in federal budget cuts — did little immediate harm to D.C., much like the budget reductions that have started to take effect.

Washington resident Sheri Sable, out walking her two dogs in light rain, said the nation's capital gets spooked by snow; even the dog park she frequents failed to open at 7 a.m.

"They just say that it might snow and the whole city shuts down," she said.

There were problems elsewhere in the region, though.

Lashing winds blew off part of the roof of a Stone Harbor, N.J., condominium complex and Ocean City officials advised residents to move their cars to higher ground in preparation of possible flooding. Maryland's Bay Bridge, which connects Maryland's Eastern shore with the Baltimore-Washington region, closed in both directions, because of wind gusts of up to 60 mph.

A tractor-trailer overturned on the bridge and leaned against the guardrail, perilously close to falling off. Kelly Kiley, an interior designer, was driving on the span soon after the accident.

"The travel on the bridge was extremely scary," Kiley said. "The crosswinds were terrible. Some of the taller box trucks were swaying."

In Pennsylvania and Ohio, many areas had 4 to 6 inches of snow. Minor tidal flooding was possible along parts of the Delaware and New Jersey coast and the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, the National Weather Service said.

Jim Lee, a weather service meteorologist in Sterling, Va., said snowfall amounts could vary greatly over a short distance.

"Over a course of, say, 20 to 30 miles, you may see a range from a few inches up to a foot of snow," Lee said.

The storm brought around 10 inches of snow to weather-hardened Chicago and closed schools in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, and canceled more than 1,100 flights at Chicago's two major airports.

Hundreds more flights were canceled Wednesday at Dulles and Reagan National airports in the Washington area, according to FlightAware.com.

While there were no initial reports of major accidents in the Chicago area, a semi-trailer slid off a snow-covered interstate in western Wisconsin, killing one person. The search for a second person, believed to be a passenger, was suspended overnight.

In Minnesota, state police responded to more than 200 highway crashes, CBS News correspondent Chip Reid reports.

Still recovering from superstorm Sandy, the Jersey Shore, along with other parts of the Northeast, prepared for another possible hit Wednesday and Thursday. The storm should bring rain and snow, but one of the biggest problems could be flooding in areas where dunes were washed away and many damaged homes still sit open and exposed. Those areas could get 2 to 4 inches of snow. A coastal flood warning was in effect until Thursday morning from Sandy Hook to Cape Cod.

The closure of many schools and offices helped ease traffic in the District of Columbia. Some Metro transit system bus routes were suspended or detoured, though trains were running on a normal schedule — albeit with an "anemic" passenger load, said spokesman Dan Stessel.

"You have your pick of seats on any Metrorail trains you board," Stessel said.

The Baltimore-Washington area's last major snowstorm struck Jan. 26, 2011. It hit Washington during the evening rush hour, causing some motorists to be stuck in traffic nearly overnight. It dropped 5 inches on Washington and 7.8 inches on Baltimore, knocked out power to about 320,000 homes and contributed to six deaths. The federal government later changed its policies to allow workers to leave their offices sooner or to work from home if major storms are expected.

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