New York (AFP) - A near record blizzard smothered the eastern United States, shutting down New York and Washington in a colossal storm that left 15 people dead and affected some 85 million residents.
More than 4,400 flights were cancelled, airports in New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore ground to a halt, the US capital shut down transport and America's most populous city banned travel.
Fifteen people died in Arkansas, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia, while more than 200,000 people were left without power and 2,200 National Guard personnel were drafted in.
Forecasters said the storm -- dubbed "Snowzilla" -- dumped 22.2 inches (56 centimeters) in Washington and 25.1 inches in New York's Central Park, the third highest accumulation since records began in 1869.
The storm was expected to taper off overnight with officials to lift at 7:00 am Sunday (1200 GMT) a travel ban in New York -- home to 8.4 million people -- Long Island and on roads into New Jersey.
"You never like to disrupt transportation and commerce, however the storm was fast and furious," said New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. "This is a storm that is nothing to be trifled with," he added.
"We know that it is very rough outside," Washington mayor Muriel Bowser told reporters, "and in some cases, there have been reports of whiteout conditions for the past two hours. Visibility is extremely poor."
Strong winds raised concerns of flooding for a large portion of the East Coast, the National Weather Service (NWS) warned, with streets in some New Jersey coastal towns filled with water and ice.
- Record setting -
In New York, bus service was suspended, and overland commuter and subway trains were shut as Broadway cancelled performances, museums closed and shops shuttered. Sports fixtures were also cancelled.
Metro and bus networks were shut down in Washington for the entire weekend, and largely shut in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Thousands of motorists were stranded for hours on highways further south.
The vast majority of flights were cancelled across much of the region, but authorities said they were working around the clock to restore operations Sunday, with the first arrivals and departures were expected at midday in New York.
Plows struggled to clear streets, where parked cars were buried under the snow and visibility deteriorated as night fell as howling winds created massive snow drifts. Reagan National and Dulles International airports in the US capital were expected to remain closed through Sunday.
The forecast suggests that the snow will end late Saturday or early Sunday in the Washington area, "but it doesn't make it any less dangerous," said mayor Bowser.
Officials warned the storm could exact more than $1 billion in damage -- but there was levity from Tian Tian, a panda at the National Zoo in Washington. Footage of the panda rolling in the snow quickly went viral.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that up to 28 inches of snow were forecast, making the storm one of the most severe in history and doubling the initial forecast as the storm became more ferocious.
"This is a storm that's packing a lot of punch, and is continuing very forcefully, and will do so into the evening," he said.
If the blizzard leaves more than two feet in Washington, it would surpass a record set in 1922 by a storm that dumped 28 inches over three days and killed 100 people after a roof collapsed at a theater.
- Power outages -
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican presidential contender, left the campaign trail to oversee the emergency response in his snowbound state, where he said there were 90,000 power outages.
"For folks who lose power, please, given how cold the weather is, try to go and shelter in the home of a friend or family member if you can. Don't stay in the cold," he told a news conference.
Nearly 120,000 power outages were reported in North Carolina, emergency officials said.
In Washington, the national monuments, Capitol building and Smithsonian museums were all closed.
Even a massive snowball fight in Washington's Dupont Circle, which 3,000 people said on Facebook they would attend, was postponed until Sunday due to the storm's ferocity.
"We just came back from some holidays in India so the weather is a difficult adjustment," said Justin Wilcox, 32, out taking selfies in the capital.
Snow and sleet also hit the southern states of Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia -- unusual for the region.
Six people were killed in road accidents in North Carolina, three people died after shoveling snow in New York, and deaths were also reported in Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia, officials said.