By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. capital shut down on Wednesday ahead of a fierce snowstorm that had blanketed the Midwest, cut power to about 50,000 homes and businesses and forced hundreds of flights to be canceled.
Jokingly referred to as "snowquestration" in a nod to the federal budget crunch, the wintry weather prompted storm warnings for much of the Ohio River Valley and the mid-Atlantic states and as far south as Georgia as the storm moved east, the National Weather Service said.
The Washington area could get slammed by its biggest snowfall in about two years, with 6 to 12 inches expected, the service said.
The government, already hit by $85 billion in budget cuts that took effect last Friday, ordered 375,000 federal workers in the Washington area to stay home. Many businesses and institutions also closed, including the International Monetary Fund.
Major school districts in the region shut down ahead of the storm, which is packing winds of up to 35 miles per hour (56 km per hour).
In the Appalachian foothills, heavy snow began overnight at Charlottesville, Virginia, and left more than 1 foot on the ground by morning. Schools were closed and roads were mostly empty.
"We've had about four snow warnings this season, but this is the first time it's actually happened," said Lucy Rucker, 70, a retiree whose power was knocked out by morning.
"We'll be spending the day indoors, I guess," she said.
Airlines canceled some 1,900 flights, including about 700 at Washington's Reagan, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International airports. About 1,700 flights were canceled on Tuesday as the storm moved across the north-central United States.
The heavy, wet snow brought down power lines and tree limbs, and about 54,000 Dominion Resources Inc homes and businesses were without power in Virginia. American Electric Power Co Inc and FirstEnergy Corp reported 5,000 customers in West Virginia were in the dark.
Coastal flood warnings were in effect for part of the Atlantic coast from Maryland north to New York's Long Island and Connecticut. Authorities in Brick Township, on New Jersey's northern shore, urged residents in flood-prone areas to evacuate.
The system dumped 9 inches of snow on Chicago's O'Hare International Airport by midnight on Tuesday, making it the city's biggest snowstorm in two years, the weather service said.
The heaviest snowfall was recorded at La Grange Park, Illinois, and at North Webster, Indiana, both with 11 inches.
Monique Bond, a spokeswoman with the Illinois State Patrol, said bad weather may have contributed to a deadly crash on Interstate Highway 70 in Marshall, Illinois, near the Indiana border.
A female driver heading east on I-70 crossed the median and crashed into a westbound tanker truck. The driver of the car and her young child died in the accident.
The heavy snow shut down at least 500 schools in central and southern Ohio, including the University of Cincinnati. The Ohio Department of Transportation said that one highway in the southern part of the state had 75 to 100 vehicles off the road.
(Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino, Patrick Rucker, Kim Palmer and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Jeffrey Benkoe and Maureen Bavdek)