Thousands of flights have been cancelled and store shelves left empty as millions of Americans on the U.S. east coast brace for a mammoth weekend storm packed with blizzards, gale-force winds, white-out conditions, and expected flooding.
In Washington, the first flakes of what could become 60 cm or more of wet, driving snow began falling just after 1 p.m., sloshing in from the Ohio River Valley looking just like the forecasts promised.
As the storm tracked northeast, Arkansas and Tennessee received around 20 cm of snow, while Kentucky got more than 30 cm. States across the Deep South were left grappling with icy, snow-covered roads, and power outages. Authorities said at least eight people died in traffic fatalities related to the storm.
It’s expected around one in seven Americans will get at least 15 cm of snow outside their homes once the storm has passed.
“The forecast does not show any evidence of lightening up,” said Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, stressing the “life and death implications.” Bowser advised residents “hunker down” through Sunday.
“This is probably going to be one of the top three snowfalls of all time for Washington,” said Daniel Petersen, a forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
Blizzard warnings and watches stretched through New York City into New England, stopping just short of Boston, but the Washington area should get hit the hardest.
At least six states, including the District of Columbia, have declared states of emergency.
Forecasters say snowfall could continue for a day and a half, dumping 60 cm or more in the Washington-Baltimore area, 30-45 cm on the Philadelphia region, and 20-25 cm on New York.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney appealed to the city’s residents asking them to stay off the streets and stay home if possible.
“I suggest the Netflix pay-per-view,” Kenney said. “Make sure you’re all stocked up. Enjoy being home and don’t go out until it’s really safe to go out, and we’ll give you the all clear.”
All the ingredients have come together for a massive snowfall and gale-force winds, causing white-out conditions and dangerous flooding. The winds initially picked up warm water from the Gulf of Mexico; now the storm is taking much more moisture from the warmer-than-usual Gulf Stream, and swirling slowly over Virginia and Maryland.
Fortunately, temperatures will be just above freezing after the storm passes in most places, and there’s no second storm lurking behind this one, making for a slow and steady melt and less likelihood of more floods, said Petersen.
“While it will begin (as) a light fluffy mixture, it will become heavy and wet snow at times, and with heavy winds, we’re concerned about the possibility for downed trees,” said Samantha Phillips, Philadelphia’s Director of Emergency Management.
The storm could easily cause more than $1 billion in damage, weather service director Louis Uccellini said.
As the storm crossed the east coast, travel was snarled in several cities. Accidents caused gridlock on roads in Nashville, Tennessee, while in North Carolina, several drivers died on icy roads. To keep people from travelling, archdioceses in Washington, Baltimore, and Delaware reminded people that dangerous travel conditions were a legitimate excuse for not attending Sunday Mass.
All major airlines have issued waivers for the weekend, allowing passengers to rebook onto earlier or later flights to avoid the storms. More than 6,000 flights were canceled Friday and Saturday — about 12 percent of their schedules, according to the flight-tracking service FlightAware. By Sunday afternoon, airlines hope to be back to full schedules.
Train service could be disrupted by frozen switches, the loss of third-rail electric power or trees falling on wires. Across the region, track workers, power company employees, road crew members, firefighters and other first-responders were mobilized for the long weekend. In New York City, 79 subway trains will have “scraper shoes” to reduce icing on rails, the Metropolitan Transit Authority said.
With files from the Associated Press