The ferocious snowstorm that delivered a sucker punch to the nation's capital disappeared to the north yesterday, and life in the Washington region limped back to normal in its wake. Snowplows rumbled into sleepy cul-de-sacs, squealing children took to the hills with sleds, and millions of winter-weary residents prepared for a return to work or school.

For the many who were snowbound, stranded or snared in hellish commutes a day earlier, the storm was a misery not easily forgotten. But under blue skies and a bright January sun, winter was also a thing of beauty. Trees glistened in the light of dawn. Cars lay half-buried like treasure on an ocean's floor, and mounds of snow softened the majestic geometry of the monuments, memorials and edifices of government.

As temperatures climbed above freezing, the new century's first major storm departed as quickly as it arrived, leaving government, schools and many businesses closed and neighborhoods on both sides of the frigid Potomac eerily quiet. The only sounds were the laughter of snowball fighters, the steady scrape of shovels and plows, the chorus of blustery winds.

The National Weather Service, still recovering from its failure to promptly forecast a storm that dropped as much as 19 inches of snow on parts of the region, said another one appeared to be brewing in the Gulf of Mexico and could arrive in Washington on Sunday. But sunny skies and temperatures hovering around 30 degrees were expected for the next few days.

"At this point, there is a threat there, and it's something we'll watch as the week goes on," said meteorologist Howard Silverman, of the possibility of additional snow. "I wouldn't put any more concern on it other than, 'Pay attention to later forecasts.' "

Police responded to dozens of crashes on slippery roads, and many local hospitals were busier than usual. One snow-related fatality was reported in the area. The Rev. George Ray, 53, pastor of Waldorf's New Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church and a church elder who had served elsewhere in Maryland and the District, suffered a heart attack Tuesday after shoveling snow at his home in Temple Hills, his wife said.

National Guard troops ferried doctors and other staff members to hospitals across the region in military Humvees. They also assisted police, sheriff's deputies and paramedics in Maryland, as well as the District.

Customers rushed to grocery stores around the area, gathering food, batteries, fuel and other necessities, and waits as long as 45 minutes were reported at one supermarket in Burke. Video stores also did a brisk business. The Blockbuster Video in Cleveland Park was forced to make change with pennies after a shipment of coins was delayed by the snow.

Lawmakers in Richmond and Annapolis and on Capitol Hill proceeded with the business of government, though many replaced their wingtips with rubber boots. In Washington, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) chastised Janice R. Lachance, director of the Office of Personnel Management, for campaigning in Iowa on Monday night as the storm arrived. She decided at 7 a.m. Tuesday to shut down federal offices in the area--too late for many workers who had already begun the trek through the blinding snow.

Back in Washington yesterday, Lachance defended her absence. "It didn't matter where I was or what I was doing. All of this information is gathered by phone. People can be anywhere there is a phone line," she said.

She decided to close the federal government yesterday, too, citing road conditions. As a result, nearly a quarter-million employees got a second day off, at a total cost of another $60 million to the U.S. Treasury.

While the government was closed, much of Washington's other big industry was humming along, if a bit slower than usual. High-tech workers swamped the region's phone lines a second straight day, choosing to hunker down at home and telecommute rather than drive or ride in.

Both Dulles-based America Online and Bell Atlantic reported heavy traffic. Like the day before, so many people were on the phone or the Internet that many callers had trouble getting dial tones. Bell Atlantic said nearly 187 million calls were placed in the District, Maryland and Virginia on Tuesday, about 20 percent more than usual.

The biggest regional snowstorm since January 1996 hit hardest in communities east of the District. Accumulations reached 19 inches in Anne Arundel County, 16.5 inches in Southern Maryland and 15 inches in Fauquier County in Virginia. Reagan National Airport recorded 9.3 inches of snow, with most near-in suburbs reporting at least a foot.

Letter carriers delivered mail throughout the Washington area except where road or weather conditions blocked routes, postal officials said, though some mail could be slowed over the next few days because East Coast airports closed Tuesday.

The power-grid managed to stay online, too. Potomac Electric Power Co. spokeswoman Makini Street attributed the electric company's good fortune to the high winds that blew the snow off tree branches that otherwise might have collapsed from the weight.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors resumed its winter meeting in Washington with all present and accounted for. Attendance at ComNet, the annual communications and networking show at the Washington Convention Center, also picked up on its second day. The Washington Capitals took to the ice at MCI Center after Tuesday's basketball game was canceled.

In Reston, the weather apparently helped solve a crime. Police say they caught up with a robbery suspect on Tuesday by following the footprints he left in the freshly fallen snow.

For the homeless, the snow was a hardship. Across the area, workers at shelters for the homeless and food banks reported high but not overwhelming volume, though some kitchens were short on volunteers. "The demand is the maximum of what we've seen, historically, but we're able to handle it," said Corinne Stevens, chief of crisis, income and victim services for Montgomery County.

In the District, city officials said shelter was available to all who would accept it. But some homeless people chose to sleep on the snowy streets and spend the day on park benches despite the pleas of social workers trying to talk them inside.

One man, dressed in a plaid shirt, down vest, fleece-style jacket and wool coat with fur collar, said he would seek shelter only if he were in danger of freezing or starving. "In this town," he said, "you can always get warm clothes and meals delivered to the park. The nourishments you need come from other means."

For others, the snow was a joy. Kristin McGovern, 28, a law student at George Washington University, took advantage of canceled classes and closed courthouses to go cross-country skiing on the National Mall. "I would have been in court doing my clerkship today, probably researching Medicare. So this is a real treat," she said.

The National Air and Space Museum was the only museum in the Smithsonian Institution's galaxy that was open yesterday, though its cafeteria, planetarium and IMAX theater were closed.

More than 825,000 local schoolchildren enjoyed a day off from studies yesterday, and harried parents struggled to entertain them. Dozens took their children to the Rock Creek Park golf course, where toboggans and sleds of various shapes, sizes and colors spotted the hillsides.

"Wheeeee!" squealed Michael Osborne, 11, as he barreled down one slope. Brushing himself off for another run, he said: "It's fun, because you get the snow in your face.

His father, Leutrell Osborne, 39, a federal prosecutor in the District, said he spent the morning shoveling show and he expected to drop in the office late last night. But the afternoon was devoted to his children. Wrapping himself around his daughter Anaka, 5, and positioning himself on a small plastic sled, he remarked, "It's great to have the day off, and spend some time with them."

For those who are counting, spring is 55 days away.

Staff writers Amy Argetsinger, Stephen Barr, Justin Blum, Dan Eggen, Maria Glod, Hamil R. Harris, Sari Horwitz, Amy Joyce, Cindy Loose, Caryle Murphy, Ann O'Hanlon, Linda Perlstein, Christina Samuels, Sarah Schafer, Fern Shen and Steve Vogel contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Paul McClung, among those who trekked to a near-perfect hill at the Capitol building for some sledding, pulls daughter Annie, 3, and Val Pehrson, 3, up the hill for a slide.

CAPTION: Sarah Frear throws snowballs at her golden retriever Walter as the two play in the snow outside their home in Chevy Chase, Md.