East coast storm: Winter system brings heaviest snowfall of the season, blankets Northeast

(CNN) -- New Yorkers awoke Wednesday morning to the sound of plows clearing the streets. In Washington, federal workers got in a few extra zzz's. And in Boston, parents scrambled to make other arrangements as kids enjoyed a snow day.

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The heaviest snowfall of the season has blanketed the Northeast, with more than a foot falling in some places.

Schools and offices are closed, roads shut down and thousands of flights grounded.

At New York's LaGuardia Airport, weary travelers spent a restless and sleep-deprived night on airport chairs and cold floors. Flight cancellations put hotel rooms in short supply.

Susan Otterstrom found out Tuesday that she gets to spend two extra days in the Big Apple, instead of returning to Illinois as planned.

"I got a call that (my flight) was canceled and I couldn't reschedule until Thursday," she told CNN affiliate WPIX.

Another traveler said she was resigned to living the concourse life until she can catch a flight out.

"I'm just going to stay here and work and doze and whatever," she said. "You do what you have to do."

More misery is in store as airlines have already canceled about 1,400 flights for Wednesday, after calling off more than 3,000 the day before, according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking service.

Driven by frigid arctic air, the powerful system is making a mess of things up and down the Eastern Seaboard, but especially from Washington to Boston. A blizzard warning is in place for Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

"The greatest snowfall is likely for southern New England, where 12 to 18 inches of snow is a distinct possibility!" said D. Hamrick of the National Weather Service. "It will definitely look and feel like a winter wonderland."

Winter storm warnings and watches were scattered from North Carolina and Tennessee to Maine. There was a blizzard warning for Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

The worst of the storm should push into the Atlantic later in the morning, forecasters said.

Did anyone mention the cold?

While the precipitation might head offshore, vast areas of the eastern United States are expected to stay in the icebox until the weekend. From the Upper Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic, temperatures will be 15-30 degrees below normal.

For Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston that means single digit lows and wind chills below zero. Slip over to the Dakotas and parts of Minnesota and temperatures will plunge into the double-digit negative numbers. Whipping winds will knock the wind chill down to 20 to 40 below zero.

It's nicer in Alaska

The cold hard truth is that Alaska right now looks like a warm weather retreat compared large sections of the lower 48 states. Forecast highs will be in the 30s and 40s for Wednesday. The warm air had to go somewhere, right?

Out West, at least one Utah resident didn't understand what all the fuss was about.

"A storm brings 10" of snow to Utah and we throw a party," said Drew Stoddard, who lives south of Salt Lake City, posted on Twitter. "It happens in New York and they declare a state of emergency."

Transportation woes

All the snow not only made it a tough slog for folks hitting the roads, but also the rails.

Amtrak said on its website that it was running a modified schedule on the Northeast Corridor, saying passengers should expect some delays and fewer trains between Washington and Boston.

Making a mess of things

Across the region, officials encouraged workers to head home early and suggested people at home stay put.

In Boston, officials called off school and instituted a parking ban on major city streets so crews could push the snow out of the way. In Washington DC, federal offices won't open until 10 a.m.

Heavy snow -- as much as 1 inch per hour -- fell in Philadelphia on Tuesday. Mayor Michael Nutter declared a snow emergency as he sent 700 city workers out to clear streets and sidewalks.

"We want to strongly encourage folks to not be out unless you have to," he told reporters. "This is a very serious storm, plummeting temps high winds makes this a dangerous storm."

But it was a time for play for some in Philadelphia. With about a foot of snow falling on the city, the steps at the Museum of Art became a sledding hill.

Governors in Delaware, New Jersey and New York issued states of emergency. More than 1,700 plows in New York were to hit the roads early Wednesday morning to try to clear the snow.

Despite the inconvenience, New York resident Jodi Kaplan found a sense of peace in the winter storm.

"Nobody was outside on the streets and no cars were driving," she said. "Everyone and everything was so quiet. It was as if NYC welcomed this weather and the chance to stop. And be frozen."

CNN's Steve Almasy, Rose Arce, Margaret Conley, Suzanne Presto and Leigh Remizowski contributed to this story.

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