Snowstorm coats East, frustrating holiday travel

  • Sun Dec 26th, 2010 5:20pm
  • News

By Sara Kugler Frazier Associated Press

NEW YORK — A powerful winter storm lay a snow blanket from the South to the Northeast on Sunday, turning roads slick, stranding thousands of airline, train and bus passengers and putting a chill in retailers’ day-after-Christmas sales.

Up to 20 inches of snow were expected in some areas, including Philadelphia, where the Eagles-Vikings NFL game was canceled, and Boston, where an aquarium had to protect — of all things — penguin ice sculptures from the elements.

Snow started falling around New York City late Sunday morning, by which time nearly 1,000 flights out of the region’s three major airports had already been canceled in anticipation of the storm. More cancellations were expected.

“We left the day after Christmas to avoid the Christmas craze. I guess that didn’t work out so well,” said Colleen James of Montclair, N.J. She, her husband, their two young children and their dachshund were at Newark Airport trying to reach family in Iowa, but their connecting flight to Chicago was delayed more than two and a half hours.

Her husband, Graham James, was resigning himself to postponing their trip a month. “Now we’re worried about just driving home because of the crazy snow,” Graham James said.

Some flights out of Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and the Carolinas also were canceled. Amtrak canceled train service from New York to Maine on Sunday evening, after doing the same earlier for several trains in Virginia.

Bus companies also canceled routes up and down the East Coast, affecting thousands of travelers.

Kate Lindquist, on her way home from New Hampshire to New York City, was greeted with a handwritten sign at a Boston bus station: “Sorry, we are closed today.”

“To have this happen on a Sunday during a holiday weekend is incredibly frustrating,” she told the AP in an e-mail.

The Northeast is getting the brunt of the storm. Forecasters issued a blizzard warning for New York City for Sunday and Monday, with a forecast of 11 to 16 inches of snow and strong winds that will reduce visibility to near zero at times. A blizzard warning was also in effect for Rhode Island and most of eastern Massachusetts including Boston, with forecasters predicting 15 to 20 inches of snow. A blizzard warning is issued when snow is accompanied by sustained winds or gusts over 35 mph.

As much as 18 inches could fall on the New Jersey shore with wind gusts over 40 mph.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter declared a snow emergency as of 2 p.m. Sunday, and he urged residents to stay off the roads.

The NFL moved the Philadelphia Eagles’ game against the Minnesota Vikings from Sunday night to Tuesday because of the blizzard. It’s the third time this season snow has forced a change of plans for the Vikings. Two of their games this month needed to be relocated because the roof of their stadium collapsed.

In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino declared a snow emergency that bans parking on all major streets, and the New England Aquarium bubble-wrapped its four 5-foot-tall penguin ice sculptures to protect them from the wind and snow.

More than 2,400 sanitation workers were working in 12-hour shifts to clear New York City’s 6,000 miles of streets. Not that Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted people to use them.

“I understand that a lot of families need to get home after a weekend away, but please don’t get on the roads unless you absolutely have to,” Bloomberg said.

In Rhode Island, emergency officials encouraged businesses to let employees report to work late Monday, saying road conditions for the early morning commute Monday would be treacherous.

The snow was easier to enjoy for people with no place to go. As the wind swirled snow through the doors of a Brooklyn supermarket, New Yorkers hurried to pick up a few staples before heading back home to hunker down.

“I’m seeing it as a great excuse to stay in and relax and drink tea,” said Toni Gifford, who works in academics and has the week off.

“Love snowy days when I don’t have to go anywhere. Staying in — just me and my cozy new socks,” author Neesha Meminger wrote on Twitter from her home in the Bronx.

She told the AP she’s able to savor the moment because her children, ages 6 and 9, are on holiday break: “If this was during the school week, I would be cursing.”

The weather deterred some people from hitting day-after-Christmas sales, but that appeared to be a relatively light blow for retailers coming off a strong shopping season.

“People will just wait a day to do exchanges and use their gift cards. It’s no big deal,” said Greg Maloney, CEO of the retail practice of Jones Lang LaSalle, which manages malls across the country.

The monster storm is the result of a low pressure system off the North Carolina coast and was strengthening as it moved northeast, according to the National Weather Service.

Travel misery began a day earlier in parts of the South, which was hit with a white Christmas for the record books. Columbia, S.C., had its first significant Christmas snow since weather records were first kept in 1887. Atlanta had just over an inch of snow — the first measurable accumulation on Christmas Day since the 1880s.

The North Carolina Highway Patrol said late Saturday that most of the roads in and around Asheville were either covered or partially covered with snow and ice.

“We’re busy,” Ryan Dean of Dean’s Wrecker Service in Raleigh, N.C., said Sunday. “We’ve been out since 3 in the morning pulling people out of the ditch.”

The National Weather Service said 8.5 inches of snow fell in Franklinton, N.C., about 30 miles north of Raleigh, from Saturday through Sunday.

Diane Smith, 55, said her power was out for about four hours there Sunday morning, but she and her husband have a generator. Relatives, including two grandchildren, who live nearby came over for breakfast and to get warm before going home after power was restored.

“It’s beautiful,” Smith said. “As long as I have power, I love it.”