Snow blankets East, keeping would-be shoppers at home and travelers stranded in airports

By Geoff Mulvihill, AP
Sunday, December 20, 2009

Storm reaches southern New England

CHERRY HILL, N.J. — A slow-moving storm that blanketed swaths of the mid-Atlantic with nearly 2 feet of snow reached southern New England on Sunday in a weekend assault along the East Coast that caused at least five deaths, crippled travel and left empty stores normally crammed with holiday shoppers.

Blizzard warnings were in effect for parts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts with gusts up to 60 mph. As much as 16 inches of snow was expected to cover parts of southern New England.

But the early arrival of wintry weather on a quiet Sunday morning could not have been better timing, said Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

“Other than spoiling the Christmas shopping — from the emergency manager perspective it was the perfect timing,” Judge said. “Even the cleanup today, we’re not fighting the people who would be trying to get to work.”

Still others were struggling with the aftermath.

On the cusp of the winter solstice, the storm dropped 16 inches of snow on Reagan National Airport outside Washington on Saturday — the most ever recorded there for a single December day — and gave southern New Jersey its highest single-storm snowfall totals in nearly four years. Some of the deepest was recorded in the Philadelphia suburb of Medford, N.J., at 24 inches.

“For those who are looking for a white Christmas, this certainly will stick around for Christmastime,” National Weather Service meteorologist Bruce Sullivan told AP Radio.

Even the NFL, with its hallowed tradition of playing in all weather conditions, including football fields nicknamed “frozen tundras,” pushed back the scheduled start times of games Sunday in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Around New York City, the brunt of the storm hit Long Island, with blizzard conditions. Nearly 25 inches were recorded in Upton. Crews clearing roads early Sunday reported whiteout conditions, said Lt. Robert P. Iberger of the Southampton police.

Nearly 11 inches of snow fell on New York City by Sunday morning, and the storm could be the worst the city has seen since about 26 inches fell in Central Park in February 2006, National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Maloit said.

Even as the storm winded down in the metro area, conditions remained treacherous and drivers were advised to stay off the roads, Maloit said. Delays were expected on bus, subway and train routes.

Near Farmingdale, N.Y., about 150 people were stranded on a Long Island Rail Road train for more than five hours by a combination of snow drifts, icing, traffic problems and equipment failures due to the weather.

Railroad spokeswoman Susan McGowan said the Ronkonkoma-bound train left Penn Station at 2:53 a.m. Sunday and eventually had to be towed to a nearby station and passengers put on a second train and sent on their way. No injuries were reported.

McGowan says LIRR was offering only limited service, and delays were averaging two hours.

With strong wind gusts to keep the powdery snow swirling, the storm was so bad on Saturday that attractions such as the Smithsonian museums in Washington and the Philadelphia Zoo were closed. The National Mall, normally swarming with tourists, instead was the scene of snowball fights.

Not all shoppers were deterred.

“It really helped me get in the Christmas spirit,” said the Kathryn Mariani, who took a train to downtown Philadelphia from her home in the Germantown neighborhood.

The mayors of Washington and Philadelphia and the governors of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware all declared states of emergency.

In West Virginia, blankets were given to hundreds of drivers, and some motorists were stranded for up to 27 hours on highways, Red Cross spokesman Jeff Morris said.

The storm hit on the last weekend before Christmas, a time when roads are traditionally mad with holiday shoppers. But around shopping centers in Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs on Saturday, traffic was sparse and slow.

Prime parking spots were available all day at the Cherry Hill Mall. And inside, there was no line for a picture with Santa. “It was fantastic,” said Chris Bailey, who got pictures of his 4-year-old daughter Olivia.

Shops at the mall and nearby restaurants closed hours early.

Salt trucks and plows were out in force. The speed limit was reduced on several roadways, including the New Jersey Turnpike. But those measures didn’t prevent scores of cars from slipping into ditches.

One person in Virginia was killed in a traffic accident caused by slick roads, and authorities said the weather may have contributed to another traffic death there. A third death in Virginia is believed to have been caused by exposure. In Ohio, two people were killed in accidents on snow-covered roads hit by the same storm system.

In New Jersey, a bus got stuck on snow-covered railroad tracks in Pennsauken and was hit by a train. The 26 passengers were evacuated from the bus 10 minutes before the crash, and the only reported injury was a minor one suffered by the train’s engineer, NJ Transit spokesman Dan Stessel said.

Greyhound shut down service in Washington and points north, and ferry service in Delaware and New Jersey was canceled.

Airports in the Northeast were also jammed up. Most flights were canceled at several, including Reagan National and Dulles in the Washington area; Philadelphia International; New York’s three major airports and Logan Airport in Boston.

By Sunday morning, one runway at Dulles International Airport was open, handling arriving flights, airport spokeswoman Tara Hamilton. At Reagan National, crews were still “moving the huge quantities of snow” dumped on the area, and Hamilton said the airport should be opening for business by midmorning.

Both airports anticipated a busy day with people catching their flights set for Sunday and those who were unable to fly Friday and Saturday, she said.

Philadelphia Airport spokeswoman Phyllis VanIstendal said that with continuing bad weather and planes out of place, problems would continue Sunday.

Associated Press writers Sarah Karush in Washington; Dena Potter in Chesterfield, Va.; Jacob Jordan in Atlanta; David Porter in Atlantic City, N.J.; Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton, N.J.; Ron Todt and Patrick Walters in Philadelphia; and AP photographer Jacquelyn Martin in Arlington, Va., contributed to this report.

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