In like a lamb, out like a lion?

A thick layer of wet snow covered the East Coast yesterday, dampeningpromise of an early spring.

As far as meteorologists are concerned, it isn't even winter anymore. That only stretches from December through February. According to the calendar, spring is just a few days away and, according to a certain groundhog who's fast getting a reputation as a liar, it should be in full swing by now.

But for people along the East Coast slogging through some of the heaviest, wettest white stuff of the season, daffodils and lilacs seem a far-off dream.

The timing may be frustrating for impatient convertible drivers, but overall, the Northeast winter of 1998-99 has been mild. Although not quite as balmy as last year, it's the 10th-warmest winter on record in this region since 1895.

And unlike Punxsutawney Phil, meteorologists who predicted a La Nia winter have been vindicated. "La Nia didn't cause this storm," and in fact, does not cause any particular storms, says Mike Halpert, a meteorologist at the Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md.

But a La Nia pattern, caused by temperatures in the eastern Pacific that are colder than average, usually means less precipitation than normal in the South and more in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

There have been a dozen such patterns in the past 50 years, and "this year has been just what we expected," Mr. Halpert says.

While expected, it does seem odd, even to a meteorologist, that most of the snowfall in the Washington, D.C., area came in March. The typical snowfall this month is only about 1-1/2 inches, Halpert says, but the area has been making up for very little snow from December through February.

In some Northeast locations yesterday, the snow fell as fast as an inch per hour. But road conditions, while messy, did not cause the type of accidents seen over the weekend in Oklahoma. There, an 18-inch snowfall was blamed for 13 road fatalities.

WHILE some counties in southern Ohio had their heaviest snowfall of the winter, the Boston-area storm wasn't any bigger than snowfalls in mid-January and late February. But the weight of the snow made it difficult to remove and caused snapped tree limbs to take down power lines, says Neal Strauss, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Taunton, Mass. At least 60,000 customers of Northeast Utilities lost electricity.

The Northeast's foodbaskets could be one beneficiary of the late-winter snow. While drought is still a possibility for this summer's crops, concerns have eased a bit because of the recent precipitation, says Keith Eggleston of the Northeast Regional Climate Center in Ithaca, N.Y.

At Boston University, classes started on schedule Monday after a week-long break. Many students weren't fazed by having to return to a snow-clad campus. After all, 1997 featured an April Fool's Day storm. But Erin Finkel, a BU senior, wished she could still be in the 85-degree temperatures of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. "It's horrible today. I mean, it's disgusting!" she declared as she headed outside after a class.

There is good news, though, for people who think spring will never break outside the walls of Boston's Bayside Exposition Center, where the annual spring flower show is in full bloom: By tomorrow, temperatures may climb up to the 50s. Maybe then it will be safe for Phil to show his face.

*Elisabetta Coletti, a Monitor staffer, contributed to this report.

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