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Millions of people shivered without electricity Thursday in the Carolinas as one of the worst ice- and snowstorms in years snapped tree limbs, snarled air travel around the country and kept children home from school in a large part of the East.

At least 20 deaths had been blamed on the storm since it blew across the southern Plains earlier in the week. Up to a foot of snow fell in places from New Mexico to North Carolina.

``It's horrible out there,'' said Errol Carter, a lawyer from Edison, N.J. ``I live less than 10 minutes from the train station, and I almost got in two accidents on the way there.''

``We've got wrecks everywhere,'' Virginia State Police Sgt. D.A. Shaver said.

Schools closed in parts of the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The Carolinas were the hardest hit as the weight of ice and snow snapped tree limbs and sent them crashing onto power lines. In Raleigh, N.C., the crack of buckling pines and oaks sounded like gunfire during hunting season.

Matt and Dawn Heric had been without heat in Durham, N.C., since the electricity went off late Wednesday. ``Unfortunately, none of the fireplaces are serviceable,'' Matt Heric said of their 90-year-old house.

``You just go to the YMCA to take your showers and farm out the kids and just do what you have to do,'' said Jill Brehm in Charlotte, N.C.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of emergency and waived most weight limits for trucks removing debris and repairing utility lines.

The storm was ``probably the largest single-event power outage we've had in this state,'' said Bryan Beaty, secretary of the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.

Duke Power said about 1.2 million homes and businesses were blacked out Thursday in North and South Carolina, far surpassing the record number affected by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The utility said it could be days before service is restored.

Carolina Power & Light reported nearly 470,000 customers without service in North Carolina. Its worst natural disaster was Hurricane Fran in 1996, which blacked out 791,000 customers.

``We expect to be restoring power through this weekend,'' CP&L spokesman Keith Poston said. ``This is a major, major winter storm.''

Other utilities in the Carolinas also had thousands of customers without power, and outages also hit parts of Virginia and West Virginia. It was the second day without power in parts of Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma.

Some 3,000 stranded travelers spent the night at North Carolina's Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. Travelers faced cancellations and long flight delays at the New York City area's LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark, N.J., airports.

One Delta shuttle left LaGuardia for Washington on time at 7:30 a.m., but before it could land, Washington's Reagan National had shut down. The pilot announced he was returning to LaGuardia, but the flight was diverted again, eventually landing at Hartford, Conn., shortly after 10 a.m.

The storm's effects on air travel spread far afield. Northwest Airlines canceled 14 flights to the East Coast from Minneapolis.

On the ground, highway traffic slowed to a crawl or stalled behind wrecks. Commuter buses ran behind schedule. And commuter railroads in the New York City region added trains to cope with an increase in riders.

About a dozen travelers spent the night on Red Cross cots at the Greyhound Bus terminal in Charleston, W.Va.

Up to 8 inches fell in the mountains of western Virginia. The Blue Ridge Parkway was shut down Wednesday in North Carolina as a foot of snow piled up in some areas. More than 7 inches had fallen by midday in New Jersey.

Deaths blamed on the storm included six in Kentucky, one in Tennessee, four in North Carolina, four in Missouri, two in Arkansas, two in South Carolina and one in Virginia.

The steady snowfall in New York City turned busy avenues and sidewalks treacherously slick, but tourists busily snapped photos.

``This just seems like the way New York should be, you know?'' said Jennifer McDaniel of Detroit. ``The snow and the lights and decorations _ it just seems right.''

``I love it,'' Doris Ross said in Hagerstown, Md., as she picked her way down a partly shoveled sidewalk. ``Everything slows down. Everything's calmer.''

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On the Net:

National Weather Service: http://iwin.nws.noaa.gov

Intellicast: http://www.intellicast.com

Accuweather: http://www.accuweather.com