The biggest - and, by far, messiest - winter storm of the season arrived earlier than predicted and shows every sign of overstaying its welcome on a day traditionally reserved for warmer thoughts.

Warnings and advisories, ranging from ice to flood watches, were in effect through 7 tonight as a storm that left a postcard-lovely covering yesterday readied an ugly turn.

By nightfall, as much as three inches of snow had fallen in the region. And that was the benign part of the storm.

Fears were building that the snow would yield to a major power-line threatening ice storm, particularly in northern and western suburban counties, from Washington to Boston.

Valentine's Day may be a fine occasion for candlelight dinners, but most people prefer to have the option of using electric lights.

Even in its benign phase, the very sight of snow yesterday was enough to force many schools to shut early and threaten any number of Valentine-related events today.

The storm is a dramatic interruption in what has otherwise been an uneventful season.

"This is the first major winter storm to impact the Northeast all winter long," said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Md.

And it isn't just the Northeast. This is a mammoth and complex storm that is affecting areas from the Four Corners of the desert Southwest to Maine. Profoundly heavy snows, perhaps 18 inches or more, were expected in the interior Northeast, including the Poconos.

"The golden shovel awards are going to go inland," Feltgen said.

You could stop short of calling nature coldhearted, but what else explains such fury on Valentine's Day after 2½ months of basically nothing?

Among those not happy about the timing are the region's restaurant owners. Valentine's Day is second only to Mother's Day in the restaurant business, according to the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association.

Having a storm so late in the season did give a break to the region's motorists yesterday. Even though the temperature was in the 20s, the snow had a hard time sticking on our generously salted streets. Also, the sun gains wattage in February as it heads for the summer solstice, and the extra radiation, even through the clouds, helps melt snow.

For example, Jim Creed, who happens to be president of the Restaurant Association's Delaware Valley chapter, had no trouble when he drove from Villanova to King of Prussia, where one of his restaurants, Creed's Seafood and Steaks, is located.

"Not an ounce of problems," he said. "It was just a regular day. The roads are clear."

This brings him to serious pet peeves: meteorological pronouncements, the media's presentation of them, and the effects on the restaurant business.

We'll come back to that point, but first, did we mention the salt? Yes, even though the snow came early, our prodigious residue from previous saltings did help keep the streets reasonably clear during the day.

The storm was forecast to show a more dangerous side overnight, however. First, the sun wasn't going to be any more help. Second, the storm was expected to really get cranking.

The snow started falling in the region about 6:30 a.m. yesterday, hours earlier than predicted, when the center of the storm was still hundreds of miles to the west. Computer models were calling for it to weaken as it moved east and then redefine itself as a major coastal storm at night off the North Carolina coast. When these storms go coastal, they become nor'easters, so named for the powerful northeast winds they generate, and those breezes are forecast to punish the Shore.

Inland, the concern is ice. The snow was forecast to mix with sleet and freezing rain in the Philadelphia area overnight.

Given the choice, the power company and road people would root mightily for sleet. Freezing rain accumulates on power lines and tree limbs and can snap them. Sleet bounces off surfaces. It is also easier for road crews to deal with than freezing rain.

In central Pennsylvania, where about three inches of snow had fallen by late afternoon, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation instructed its plow drivers to leave an inch or so of snow on the road, said Steve Chizmar, a PennDot spokesman in Harrisburg. That would provide a bed into which any freezing rain could fall.

Peco Energy had everyone on alert, and it advised any customers with power problems to call 1-800-841-4141.

No matter what the storm does or doesn't do, Creed and his restaurant colleagues believe that the damage has already been done - by the forecasts.

"If we really get the snow, we lose a majority of our business," he said.

"If they predict it, we'll lose a large part of our business. You sit there and pull your hair out."

Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.