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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Heavy snow and strong winds slammed the northeastern United States on Sunday, canceling hundreds of flights and causing havoc as travelers scurried to return to work after the Christmas holiday.
The National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings along the coast from Maine down to New Jersey with winter storm warnings in effect for nearly the entire East Coast.
The air travel nightmare was made worse when Amtrak canceled passenger rail service between New York and Boston.
The weather service forecast 15 to 25 inches of snowfall in New York City through Sunday night with widespread blowing of snow expected on Monday, when many people will be returning to work after celebrating Christmas.
"Unfortunately our city is directly in the path," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a news conference, saying gale force winds of up to 55 mph were expected.
Some 2,400 sanitation workers were called in to clear snow from the streets, Bloomberg said .
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency as much of New England braced for up to 20 inches of snowfall.
In one sign of the severity of the storm, an NFL football game scheduled for Philadelphia was postponed, forcing the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings to reschedule their game for Tuesday.
Conditions deteriorated steadily on Sunday afternoon in the Boston area. Grocery stores were stripped of basic supplies like milk and bread, and shoppers stocked up on firewood and snow removal necessities such as shovels and ice melt.
A snow emergency was in place in Boston, meaning only essential employees were being asked to work on Monday.
After the southern United States was hit with a rare "White Christmas," snowstorms moved north where the major cities were pelted with snow blowing sideways.
At least four airlines -- United Continental Holdings' United Airlines and Continental, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines -- said on their websites they were granting waivers and rescheduling rights for people traveling through northeastern airports this weekend.
Delta canceled about 850 flights, roughly one-sixth of its schedule, while American and JetBlue Airways Corp each canceled about 265 flights, airline representatives said.
Most of American's cancellations were for flights after mid-afternoon Sunday, and the airline said it hoped to be up and running again by mid-morning on Monday.
JetBlue normally schedules some 750 flights daily in the northeast. A spokeswoman said passengers ticketed for flights through Tuesday would be allowed to rebook anytime through January 14 without penalties.
A spokesman for United Airlines said it had 110 cancellations from its systemwide daily schedule of more than 3,000 flights, and Continental canceled 265 as of mid-morning on Sunday. Continental's cancellations chiefly affected its Newark, New Jersey hub operations.
The Federal Aviation Administration's real-time flight tracker showed no delays at any of the major New York area airports. In many cases, though, airlines appear to have canceled flights rather than run the risk of delays.
"We're not showing delays at Kennedy or Newark because there's been a great reduction in volume because of all the cancellations," an FAA spokeswoman said. "They're keeping pace with the flights that are out there."
There have been some delays at LaGuardia, she said, because of visibility issues.
A spokeswoman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the region's airports, said all three airports remained open but that there had been about 1,000 flights canceled.
The New York region's bridges and tunnels remained opened and in good order, she said, though the Staten Island bridges have had reduced speed limits imposed due to the weather.
Additional reporting by Chris Michaud and Ros Krasny; editing by Todd Eastham