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Fierce blizzard hits half of US

CHICAGO — A fearsome storm spread a smothering shroud of white over nearly half the nation Wednesday, snarling transportation from Oklahoma to New England, burying parts of the Midwest under 2 feet of snow and laying down dangerously heavy layers of ice in the Northeast that were too much for some buildings to bear.

Tens of millions of people stayed home. The hardy few who ventured out faced howling winds that turned snowflakes into face-stinging needles. Chicago’s 20.2 inches of snow was the city’s third-largest amount on record. In New York’s Central Park, the pathways resembled skating rinks.

The storm that resulted from two clashing air masses was, if not unprecedented, extraordinarily rare for its size and ferocious strength.

“A storm that produces a swath of 20-inch snow is really something we’d see once every 50 years — maybe,’’ National Weather Service meteorologist Thomas Spriggs.

Lonely commuters struggled against drifts 3 and 4 feet deep in eerily silent streets that hadn’t seen a plow’s blade since the snow started a day earlier. Parkas and ski goggles normally reserved for the slopes became essential for getting to work.

“This is probably the most snow I’ve seen in the last 34 years,” joked 34-year-old Chicagoan Michael George. “I saw some people cross-country skiing on my way to the train. It was pretty wild.”

Although skies were beginning to clear over much of the nation’s midsection, the storm promised to leave a blast of bitter cold in its wake. Overnight temperatures in the upper Midwest were expected to fall to minus 5 to minus 20, with wind chills as much as minus 30.

The system was blamed for at least 10 deaths, including a homeless man who burned to death on New York’s Long Island as he tried to light cans of cooking fuel and a woman in Oklahoma City who was killed while being pulled behind a truck on a sled that hit a guard rail.

Airport operations slowed to a crawl nationwide, and flight cancellations reached 13,000 for the week, making this system the most disruptive so far this winter. A massive post-Christmas blizzard led to about 10,000 cancellations.

In the winter-weary Northeast, thick ice caused several structures to collapse, including a gas station canopy on Long Island and an airplane hangar near Boston. In at least two places, workers heard the structures beginning to crack and narrowly escaped.

In Middletown, Conn., the entire third floor of a building failed, littering the street with bricks and snapping two trees. Acting Fire Marshal Al Santostefano said two workers fled when they heard a cracking sound.

‘‘It’s like a bomb scene,’’ Santostefano said. ‘‘Thank God they left the building when they did.’’

More than a half-dozen states began digging out from up to a foot of snow that made roads treacherous and left hundreds of thousands of homes without power.