UPDATE 4-Winter storm hits eastern US, snarls holiday travel

(Changes dateline, byline, adds Buffalo color)

WASHINGTON, Dec 26 (Reuters) - A powerful winter storm that

has claimed at least five lives pounded the U.S. Midwest and

Northeast and snarled post-Christmas travel on Wednesday after

rare tornadoes pummeled the Gulf Coast.

Heavy snow and high winds prompted National Weather Service

blizzard and winter storm warnings for the Ohio River Valley and

into the Northeast. Fifteen inches (37.5 cm) of snow were

recorded at New Baltimore, Michigan, as the storm headed north

and east.

About 1,500 U.S. flights were canceled on Wednesday,

according to FlightAware.com, a site that tracks flights. Some

170 flights also have been called off for Thursday, and several

airlines waived ticket change fees for affected customers.

All four runways at Philadelphia International Airport were

open on Wednesday, but some travelers still faced some canceled

flights.

Mary Mazzoni, 25, an environmental writer from Scottsdale,

Arizona, had to book an alternate flight on a different airline

after her original flight to Phoenix was canceled. She is

scheduled to ar rive in Phoenix late on Wednesday.

"It's a little annoying. But I'm trying to keep a good

attitude about it," said Mazzoni, who was returning to Arizona

after visiting relatives for the Christmas holidays.

WINTER WONDERLAND

The National Weather Service warned that 12 to 18 inches (30

to 45 cm) of snow were expected in northern New England, with

snow falling through Friday morning. The storm was accompanied

by freezing rain and sleet, making driving treacherous, it said.

Across central New York, about 25 minor accidents were

reported in a two-hour span Wednesday along major highways, said

New York State Police Sergeant Nick Merritt.

"Right now we have additional patrols out on the roads in

case we need them," he said.

If predictions of up to 16 inches (40 cm) of snow come true,

Buffalo will still be well below average for snowfall, said Bill

Hibbert, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

Buffalo's snowfall is 23 inches (57.5 cm) below normal for the

season.

Severe thunderstorms and widespread rain were expected from

southeast Virginia to Florida, the agency said. The eastern

counties in North Carolina and South Carolina were under tornado

watches or warnings for much of the day.

The winter storm had swept out of the southern Great Plains

and through the South on Tuesday. The system spawned at least 34

tornadoes.

A Texas man died after an accident involving a toppled tree

in the road. Icy roads contributed to the deaths of four people

in auto crashes in Oklahoma and Arkansas, according to police.

Twisters struck in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and

Louisiana, flattening houses and causing injuries, according to

the weather service. The storm also dumped record snowfalls in

north Texas and Arkansas.

Nearly 200,000 homes and businesses had no electricity in

Arkansas and Alabama on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins and Ian Simpson; Additional

reporting by Corrie MacLaggan, Eileen O'Grady, Steve Olafson,

Dave Warner and Neale Gulley; Editing by Paul Thomasch and

Sandra Maler)

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