The New York Times, Dec. 20, 2009
An enormous winter storm piled snow on New York and New England Saturday evening, after crippling the nation’s capital and the mid-Atlantic earlier in the day, causing thousands of flights to be canceled across the country, knocking out power lines and stranding motorists during the peak of the holiday shopping and travel season.
With winter officially starting on Monday, one to two feet of snow were expected to fall by Sunday morning from Virginia to New England, where blizzard warnings were posted for coastal areas.
“This is one of the bigger ones,” said Kevin Witt, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in the Baltimore-Washington forecast office in Sterling, Va.
Mr. Witt said that when the gusty snow ended late Saturday night into Sunday morning it could rank among the top 10 winter snowstorms.
By 10 p.m. Saturday, the National Weather Service reported that nearly 9 inches of snow had fallen in Breezy Point, Queens, and 3.7 inches at LaGuardia Airport. But even before the heaviest snow arrived in New York, more than 500 flights from the three area airports were canceled, and a winter storm warning was in effect until 11 a.m. Sunday.
Snow has been measured in Central Park since 1869, and only two storms have produced more than two feet of snow, the most recent in February 2006. This storm was not likely to exceed a foot and a half in Central Park, but some parts of central Long Island could see up to two feet, said Jeffrey Tongue, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service based in Upton, N.Y.
Overnight winds were expected to whip up to 40 to 45 miles an hour on Long Island, he said, creating whiteout conditions.
In Washington, a city not accustomed to snow this early and this much, the storm blanketed the capital in serenity. At least it seemed picturesque until it began falling at a rate of two inches per hour on the major city streets and the surrounding Beltway early Saturday afternoon, snarling traffic and forcing mass transit shutdowns of buses and many trains.
The mayor of Washington, Adrian M. Fenty, declared a snow emergency, following the state of emergency that Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia declared on Friday in advance of the storm. At least one driver died because of the snow in Virginia, a 68-year-old woman whose car ran off a state road near the North Carolina border, said Laura Southard, of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. A woman was also killed when her car drove off a snowy state road in Defiance, Ohio, according to the state highway patrol. By Saturday afternoon, Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky, Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mayor Michael A. Nutter of Philadelphia had also declared emergencies.
Greyhound canceled service on 294 routes through Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., and discontinued service in and out of New York City around 8 p.m., said Maureen Richmond, a spokeswoman.
Officials in Washington said the storm was likely to produce the area’s heaviest snow since February 2003, when about 16 inches fell. Metrorail trains stopped serving all of the city’s above-ground stations at 1 p.m. on Saturday because heavy snow was already covering the electrified third rail that powers the trains. All of the city’s buses also stopped running around the same time, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
Traffic ground to a halt on the Beltway that encircles the city, as at least 10 tractor trailers were unable to climb a steep snow-covered hill near Marlow Heights and stalled, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration. Cars and trucks idled for an hour before plows cleared the highway.
In Virginia, hundreds of accidents, including several major ones involving tractor trailers, shut down parts of Interstate 81, said Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. Near Lexington, Va., about 200 miles southwest of Washington, motorists were stranded in a seven-mile backup for most of the day and early evening.
“Local law enforcement officials along with the National Guard are out there, and they’re trying to reach those motorists and bring them food and water and gas,” Mr. Caldwell said. “We are urging people to stay with their vehicles.”
Hundreds of thousands of people lost power as the storm swept eastward on Friday and Saturday, including 135,000 customers in West Virginia served by Appalachian Power, a division of American Electric Power. That company also reported 19,456 outages in Tennessee on Saturday afternoon, and its Kentucky division reported 69,400 in that state. Ms. Southard, of Virginia’s Department of Emergency Management, said at least 71,000 were without power on Saturday afternoon. In parts of western North Carolina, where the storm struck Friday evening, more than 60,000 customers were without power on Saturday.
It was still unclear how the storm would affect retail sales on the final frenzied shopping weekend before Christmas, but the snow had already forced the nation’s major airlines to issue travel waivers and redirect a large number of passengers.
The runways at all three Washington area airports were shut down by Saturday evening: Ronald Reagan National Airport closed before noon. Baltimore-Washington International Airport closed its runways at 1:40 p.m. on Saturday, said a spokesman, Jonathan Dean. And Dulles International Airport closed by early evening, said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
“The snow is accumulating too quickly on the taxiways, and we need to close to aircraft operations so we can clear snow from the airfield to be open tomorrow morning for the airlines,” Ms. Hamilton wrote in an e-mail message.
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