A snow storm threatening to become Maryland's worst paralyzed the state with a one-two punch of fast-falling snow and blustery winds that choked roads, grounded Baltimore- Washington International Airport and created waist-high snow drifts that made finding your car -- let alone driving it -- nearly impossible.

With an accumulation of two feet of snow possible, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. declared a state of emergency, sending the National Guard into the streets aboard all-terrain Humvees to transport paramedics to accident scenes, doctors and nurses to hospitals, and dialysis patients to their appointments, said Maryland Emergency Management Agency spokesman Quentin Banks.Hours after declaring a state of emergency, the governor escalated the state's snow response and ordered all nonemergency vehicles off roads owned or maintained by the state until 4 a.m., on penalty of a $1,000 fine. Delaware officials made the same order earlier in the day.

The last time a governor declared a state of emergency was during the blizzard of 1996, which hammered states as far south as Kentucky; moved north to Philadelphia, Newark and New York; and dumped 22.5 inches of snow in Baltimore, according to the National Weather Service.

"We're already surpassing that," said Andy Woodcock, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va., which said the snow was expected to taper off later today.

"I've been here over 35 years, and I've never seen snow like this," said Maj. Gen. Bruce Tuxill of the Maryland National Guard.

Around the region

The deep, drifting snow turned the state into a surreal winter wonderland. Under the falling flakes, mechanic Alan Ballek zoomed around on his snowmobile in Baltimore County.

Alfred and Sylvie Nkere made their way to St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore to baptize their 2-month-old daughter Amini.

And triathlete Judy Carbary and her husband, Jim, went cross-country skiing in their Columbia neighborhood.

Meanwhile, 2,100 state workers in snow plows struggled to clear roads of the rapid snowfall.

"We are fighting this storm from the mountains of Garrett County to Ocean City and from south to north," said State Highway Administration spokeswoman Lora Rakowski. "Our crews are energetic, but when they do a route, as soon as they're done, it's snow-covered."

The storm was spawned by the collision of a vigorous upper-air disturbance and a band of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico with an entrenched pocket of cold air over Maryland and Virginia.

The atmosphere was volatile enough to produce lightning and thunder at times, an unusual condition associated with extremely heavy snowfall, said Calvin Meadows, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

The storm dumped up to 1 1/2 inches of snow per hour in Central Maryland, and from 1 to 2 feet of powdery snow were expected throughout the region, with isolated patches as much as 3 feet deep on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Parts of southern Virginia reported sleet and freezing rain with the snow.

By evening, the snow amounts included 20 1/2 inches in Owings Mills; 20 inches in parts of Anne Arundel County; 19 inches in areas of Carroll County; 18.3 inches in Columbia; 17 inches in Catonsville and sections of Howard County; 16 inches in Parkville, Annapolis and Baltimore; and 13 inches at BWI.

On the Eastern Shore, the storm brought everything from monstrous snowfall totals in the northern counties to a nasty mixture of snow, ice and rain along the coast in Wicomico, Worcester and Somerset.

Ocean City officials said that even with a hefty 4- to 6-inch snow, the weather wound up taking on the familiar characteristics of a wintertime nor'easter, prompting flood warnings as high tides pushed water onto low-lying streets, especially in the old downtown on the southern end of the resort.

In Talbot, Caroline, Queen Anne's and Kent counties, steady snow made shoveling futile yesterday as cleared sidewalks and driveways were quickly covered again. Road crews worked nonstop, but even passable main highways such as U.S. 50 were covered with several inches of snow throughout the day.

By 3 p.m. in Baltimore, the Office of Transportation declared a Phase II snow emergency. Cars obstructing snow emergency routes will be towed elsewhere in the neighborhood, said department spokeswoman Adrienne D. Barnes.