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US digs out after week of 'sleeze'

WASHINGTON - Weary with constant practice, the eastern United States is starting to dig out after a week's buffeting by the elements - the latest and most disruptive storm of what has been the severest winter here for at least 12 years, writes Rupert Cornwell.

Yesterday was the first time in a week that the sun had appeared and temperatures risen above zero anywhere between the Canadian border and Washington DC. The snow, sleet and ice have disrupted business, closed airports and rail services, and on Friday shut down the entire federal government for the second time this year.

Although temperatures did not reach the record depths plumbed three weeks ago, this twelfth winter storm to hit the north-east deposited a foot of snow on New York, and twice as much in parts of New England. Here, and in much of the mid-Atlantic region, the punishment was 'sleeze', an unbroken 24- hour blizzard of sleet and freezing rain that brought down power and phone lines and coated roads, trees and buildings with ice up to two inches thick.

The cause of the trouble has been a southward shift in the upper atmosphere jet stream, allowing Arctic air from Canada to collide with warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. The result was what a US National Weather Service spokesman called 'probably one of the top 10 sleet storms in modern times here'. Thirty-six hours after the battering, half a million people from Virginia to Alabama were without electricity. Although temperatures are expected to climb into the 40s for the next few days, city officials warn it will take far longer to melt the pack ice - not least because previous storms have almost exhausted stocks of sand and salt.

All across the country, the winter of '94 is already in the history books. Lake Superior froze over for the first time since 1978; in Washington, January temperatures were five full degrees below average. In economic terms, the weather may slow down recovery, knocking half a point or more off first-quarter GNP.

The misery though is finite. Technically, 35 days remain until the vernal equinox and the start of spring. For sports enthusiasts the wait is not as long. In Florida and Arizona the symbolic rites of the summer to come have begun - major league baseball players are reporting for spring training.