Snowstorms kill 17 as America braces itself for further weekend of misery

MILLIONS of Americans were braced for another deadly blast of wintry weather last night, as the death toll from the first storms of the season climbed to at least 17.

Forecasters said a massive belt of snow and ice stretching thousands of miles, from the Midwest to New England, would leave freezing temperatures and treacherous conditions in its wake, heaping more misery on those caught out by the unexpected severity of winter's opening salvo.

Entire towns lost power, colleges and hospitals were closed in several states and thousands of air passengers were left stranded by the big chill, which prompted the governor of Wisconsin to declare a state of emergency.

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Most of the deaths, meanwhile, came in road accidents blamed on the hazardous conditions.

More than half a metre of snow fell in Iowa and Wisconsin, blown by wind gusts of 50mph into drifts 4.5m high. Parts of upstate New York, Maine, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania were also hit, and residents of Kansas and Montana were warned that they faced a new deluge of snow overnight.

The National Weather Service (NWS) issued fresh warnings yesterday of freezing temperatures in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.

"It's already very cold across the entire region," said Casey Sullivan, an NWS meteorologist. Temperatures there might remain as low as -19C, she said, with wind chill making it feel -32C.

The scale of the storm, which swept eastwards across the US from small beginnings in California at the start of the week, caught weather experts by surprise after the unusually mild November.

Many southern and western states, among the last to be affected by winter gales moving south from Canada, were also caught out. The NWS reported record snow in Flagstaff, Arizona, wind gusts of up to 100mph in New Mexico, and wind chills of -40C in Montana.

Before the last of the storm passes off the coast of Maine today, at least two-thirds of the country was expected to have been hit. Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle last night put troops on standby for rescue and recovery missions.

"We are expecting blizzard-like conditions for much of the state over the next 24 to 36 hours," he said. "As a precautionary measure, I've declared a state of emergency for National Guard assets to be available to respond as needed."

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In state capital Madison, more than half a metre of snow fell, and many residents caught in the storm were stranded when the city's buses were suspended. About 30,000 households in the state were still without electricity last night as crews worked to free power lines from fallen trees.

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