From staff and wire reports

Paul Wong
Yukari Kubo, Naoko Kotake and Emi Kajimura, all 19, sleep at New York”s LaGuardia Airport yesterday after their flight to Louisville, Ky., was canceled.<br><br>AP PHOTO

Two people suffered minor injuries in a chain-reaction 50-car pileup on U.S. 23 last night that shut down the southbound lanes of the highway near M-14 for about five hours.

Washtenaw County Sheriff”s Department and Michigan State Police officials said there were numerous reports of fender-benders around the area after snow squalls left roads snow-covered and icy.

“Cars were everywhere: in ditches, rollovers, crashes. It was like that quite steadily from early afternoon to the later part of the evening, 10 or 11 p.m.,” said State Police Trooper Michael McCormick at the Ypsilanti post.

“We were just going from crash to crash all afternoon,” McCormick said.

The blowing snow was no trouble for officials at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, although dozens of flights to and from the East Coast were canceled.

Northwest Airlines, which handles the majority of passenger traffic at Detroit Metro, issued a weather waiver for customers traveling to or from, or making connections in, several northeastern cities.

Residents in parts of Michigan were expected to wake up to as much as 6 inches of snow today as the fringes of a storm that walloped the northeast passed over the Great Lakes.

The powerful storm plastered the Northeast with snow and ice yesterday, snarling air travel across the country and overseas in an expected two-day assault that could be the region”s biggest blast of winter in years.

One to 3 feet of snow was forecast across much of New Jersey, New York and New England by early today.

Schools were closed yesterday for millions of youngsters from West Virginia to Maine.

The nor”easter had been forecast days in advance, and people had plenty of time to stock up on groceries, snow shovels and videos, stripping shelves bare in some stores.

“It”s like they”re never going to eat again,” Mavis McLynn said as she shopped at a supermarket in Philadelphia.

The heaviest snowfall from the slow-moving storm was expected today, but by yesterday a foot or more had already fallen in upstate New York and northeastern Pennsylvania. Elsewhere, sleet and freezing rain glazed sidewalks and highways.

Meteorologists warned that the storm could be similar to the blizzard of 1978, which buried southern New England in 3 feet of snow, caused more than 100 deaths and battered coastal areas with high waves.

“Sandbags aren”t going to help a bit in this case. If it comes, it”s going to come,” said emergency official Mark Zartarian at the shore town of Rye, N.H. “If it”s anything like “78, it”s going to lift and move boulders the size of your car.”

New York”s Education Department estimated 90 percent of the state”s public and private schools were closed, affecting 3.1 million students, including 1.1 million in New York City. Every school in Connecticut was shuttered, keeping more than 500,000 kids at home. In Boston, some 62,000 youngsters got the day off. Philadelphia schools closed early, and hundreds of thousands of students were sent home.

Airlines canceled hundreds of flights at the New York metropolitan area”s LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark airports, and more than 400 flights were called off at Boston”s airport. Swissair grounded flights that would have carried about 1,600 passengers to and from Europe yesterday.

Despite days of warnings from forecasters, some travelers wound up stranded at airports.

“I”ve been here so long it seems like years,” said Joshua McKinley, 21, who was among the weary travelers who spent the night on cots at LaGuardia.

While utility crews and state emergency workers were on standby, nonessential government workers were told to stay home and off the roads in Connecticut, New York City”s suburbs, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly called off yesterday”s planned budget hearings.

Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland banned jackknife-prone tractor-trailers from the state”s highways, and in Massachusetts all bus service between Cape Cod and Boston was canceled.

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