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Blizzard brings much of East Coast to a standstill

Last Updated Jan 23, 2016 11:56 PM EST

NEW YORK -- A blizzard with hurricane-force winds brought much of the East Coast to a standstill Saturday, dumping as much as three feet of snow, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and shutting down the nation's capital and its largest city.

After days of weather warnings, most of the 80 million people in the storm's path heeded requests to stay home and off the roads, which were largely deserted. Yet at least 18 deaths were blamed on the weather, resulting from car crashes, shoveling snow and hypothermia.

And more snow was to come, with dangerous conditions expected to persist until early Sunday, forecasters warned.

"This is going to be one of those generational events, where your parents talk about how bad it was," Ryan Maue, a meteorologist for WeatherBell Analytics, said from Tallahassee, Florida, which also saw some flakes.

The system was mammoth, dropping snow from the Gulf Coast to New England. By afternoon, areas near Washington had surpassed 30 inches. The heaviest unofficial report was in a rural area of West Virginia, not far from Harper's Ferry, with 40 inches.

As the storm picked up, forecasters increased their snow predictions for New York and points north and warned areas nearly as far north as Boston to expect heavy snow.

More than 25 inches of snow had fallen in New York City by 7 p.m. Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

The 25.1-inch snowfall reading in Central Park marks the third most snow since records were kept beginning in 1869. The National Weather Service says the current record is 26.9 inches from February 2006.

"This is kind of a Top 10 snowstorm," and likely a Top 5 for New York and Washington, said weather service winter storm expert Paul Kocin, who co-wrote a two-volume textbook on blizzards.

"This is a very big deal," New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said. "People have to take very seriously what's going on here and recognize there's a lot of danger and a lot of disruption that's going to occur because of this storm."

In New York, three people died while shoveling snow in Queens and Staten Island. The normally bustling streets around Rockefeller Center, Penn Station and other landmarks were mostly empty. Those who did venture out walked down the middle of snow-covered streets to avoid even deeper drifts on the sidewalks.

Officials imposed a travel ban in the city from Saturday afternoon until 7 a.m. Sunday, ordering all non-emergency vehicles off the roads. Commuter rails and above-ground segments of the nation's biggest subway system shut down too, along with buses.

Without a bus, home health aide Elijah Scarboro couldn't get to his next client, an 89-year-old man with Alzheimer's disease.

"I wish I could get there, but I can't," Scarboro said, hoping the man would be safe at home with his wife.

With Broadway shows dark, thin crowds shuffled through a different kind of Great White Way in Times Square.

Taxi driver Mian Ayyub said he tried to pick up fares Saturday morning but gave up after getting stuck four times in two hours. Police and passers-by helped free him.

"I've been driving a cab 28 years, but this looks like the worst," he said, before parking and going home.

The scenario was much the opposite of what unfolded a year ago, when a storm carrying predictions for 18 to 24 inches of snow prompted officials to shut down the subway system completely, but far less than a foot ultimately fell. The decision to close the subways drew criticism from some business owners and transit advocacy groups, but the mayor and governor said the forecast had left them no choice.

In Washington, monuments that would typically be busy with tourists stood vacant. In the morning, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial had not been cleared of snow and looked almost like a ski slope. All mass transit in the capital was to be shut down through Sunday.

Once the snow stopped, the timeline for digging out was unclear, D.C. emergency management director Chris Geldart told CBS News.

"That's the big question for everybody right now," Geldart said. "It's a big question for us as well."

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the immediate closure of the entire 34.7-mile length of I-270 and I-70 from I-81 in Washington County to the Baltimore Beltway. The highways will remain closed until 7 a.m. on Sunday to all motorists except for emergency personnel.

The closures follow snow related traffic incidents involving several tractor trailers and other vehicles on both interstates. Hogan urged Marylanders to stay off every road in the state so crews can clear the roads.

Baltimore banned non-emergency vehicles from its streets overnight to speed the cleanup from the massive East Coast snowstorm.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the ban would be in effect from 6:30 p.m. Saturday to 6 a.m. Sunday. It could be extended, if conditions warrant.

The mayor said only police cruisers, fire trucks, ambulances, snow plows and BGE utility repair trucks should be on the roads during that time. City hospitals were asked to keep the workers they need onsite as well.

Drivers skidded off snowy, icy roads in accidents that killed several people as the storm raged Friday and Saturday. Those killed included a six-year-old boy in North Carolina, a Kentucky transportation worker who was plowing highways, another Kentucky man whose car collided with a salt truck and a woman whose husband scaled a 300-foot-embankment to report that the couple's car had plunged down it and killed her.

An Ohio teenager sledding behind an all-terrain vehicle was hit by a truck and killed, and two people died of hypothermia in southwest Virginia. In North Carolina, a man whose car had veered off an icy-covered road was arrested on charges of killing a motorist who stopped to help.

Authorities said four people were killed in a two-vehicle crash on a northeastern Pennsylvania interstate overnight.

State police in Lackawanna County say a car apparently heading north in the southbound lanes on Interstate 81 collided with a southbound car shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday in South Abington Township.

Coroner Timothy Rowland said autopsies are scheduled Sunday on the victims, all of whom are from Scranton. State police and the county district attorney's office are investigating.

Elsewhere, drivers were marooned for hours in snow-choked highways in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The Temple University women's gymnastics team, Duquesne University's men's basketball team and a church group from Indiana were among travelers who got stuck when the Pennsylvania Turnpike turned into a snowy parking lot.

Roofs collapsed on a historic theater in Virginia and a horse barn in Maryland, while seaside towns in New Jersey and Delaware grappled with flooding.

A full moon and high tides joined forces with the blizzard to flood communities along the Jersey Shore. At Cape May, the morning high tide was over nine feet, breaking the record set during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Chunks of ice the size of coffee tables flowed down flooded streets in Ocean City, one of dozens of towns along the coast with roads shut down by the storm.

The snow alone would have been enough to bring the East Coast to a halt. But it was whipped into a maelstrom by winds that reached 75 mph at Dewey Beach, Delaware, and Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, the weather service said.

From Virginia to New York, sustained winds topped 30 mph and gusted to around 50 mph. The wind was so strong that scientists reported trouble measuring the snow because it sometimes seemed to blow sideways.

And if that weren't enough, the storm also had bursts of thunder and lightning. Forecasters saw lightning out the window of the Weather Prediction Center, where meteorologists were camped out.

The ice and snow canceled more than 10,000 flights on between Friday and Monday, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. Some airports, including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport, may not fully reopen until Monday.

Cancellations have centered on Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina, Philadelphia, Washington and New York, with airlines essentially shutting down all flights into those cities.

Amtrak also canceled or cut back on service. Several trains scheduled to depart Washington D.C. for New York City were canceled, as was service from Washington to stations in Virginia and the Southeast.

Stranded travelers included Defense Secretary Ash Carter, whose high-tech aircraft, known as the Doomsday Plane, couldn't land at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland after returning from Europe. Carter was rerouted to Tampa, Florida, where he planned to wait for better weather.

In its wake, the storm also knocked out electricity to thousands of homes and businesses.