NEW YORK – A blizzard with hurricane-force winds brought much of the East Coast to a standstill Saturday, dumping as much as 3 feet of snow, stranding tens of thousands of travellers and shutting down the nation’s capital and its largest city.
After days of weather warnings, most of the 80 million people in the storm’s path heeded requests to stay home and off the roads, which were largely deserted. Yet at least 18 deaths were blamed on the weather, resulting from car crashes, shovelling snow and hypothermia. And more snow was to come, with dangerous conditions expected to persist until early Sunday, forecasters warned.
“This is going to be one of those generational events, where your parents talk about how bad it was,” Ryan Maue, a meteorologist for WeatherBell Analytics, said from Tallahassee, Florida, which also saw some flakes.
The system was mammoth, dropping snow from the Gulf Coast to New England. By afternoon, areas near Washington had surpassed 30 inches. The heaviest unofficial report was in a rural area of West Virginia, not far from Harper’s Ferry, with 40 inches.
As the storm picked up, forecasters increased their snow predictions for New York and points north and warned areas nearly as far north as Boston to expect heavy snow.
“This is kind of a Top 10 snowstorm,” and likely a Top 5 for New York and Washington, said weather service winter storm expert Paul Kocin, who co-wrote a two-volume textbook on blizzards.
In New York, three people died while shovelling snow in Queens and Staten Island. The normally bustling streets around Rockefeller Center, Penn Station and other landmarks were mostly empty. Those who did venture out walked down the middle of snow-covered streets to avoid even deeper drifts on the sidewalks.
With Broadway shows dark, thin crowds shuffled through a different kind of Great White Way in Times Square.
As recently as Friday night, New York officials had expected the storm to top out at 18 inches. But that prediction jumped to 25 inches Saturday morning and to 28 by evening. More than 19 inches had fallen on Central Park by late afternoon.
Officials imposed a travel ban in the city, ordering all nonemergency vehicles off the roads. Commuter rails and above-ground segments of the nation’s biggest subway system shut down too, along with buses.
Without a bus, home health aide Elijah Scarboro couldn’t get to his next client, an 89-year-old man with Alzheimer’s disease.
“I wish I could get there, but I can’t,” Scarboro said, hoping the man would be safe at home with his wife.
Taxi driver Mian Ayyub said he tried to pick up fares Saturday morning but gave up after getting stuck four times in two hours. Police and passers-by helped free him.
“I’ve been driving a cab 28 years, but this looks like the worst,” he said.
He parked and went home.
The scenario was much the opposite of what unfolded a year ago, when a storm carrying predictions for 18 to 24 inches of snow prompted officials to shut down the subway system completely, but far less than a foot ultimately fell. The decision to close the subways drew criticism from some business owners and transit advocacy groups, but the mayor and governor said the forecast had left them no choice.
In Washington, monuments that would typically be busy with tourists stood vacant. In the morning, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial had not been cleared of snow and looked almost like a ski slope. All mass transit in the capital was to be shut down through Sunday.
Drivers skidded off snowy, icy roads in accidents that killed several people as the storm raged Friday and Saturday. Those killed included a 4-year-old boy in North Carolina, a Kentucky transportation worker who was plowing highways, another Kentucky man whose car collided with a salt truck and a woman whose husband scaled a 300-foot-embankment to report that the couple’s car had plunged down it and killed her.
An Ohio teenager sledding behind an all-terrain vehicle was hit by a truck and killed, and two people died of hypothermia in southwest Virginia. In North Carolina, a man whose car had veered off an icy-covered road was arrested on charges of killing a motorist who stopped to help.
Elsewhere, drivers were marooned for hours in snow-choked highways in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The Temple University women’s gymnastics team, Duquesne University’s men’s basketball team and a church group from Indiana were among travellers who got stuck when the Pennsylvania Turnpike turned into a snowy parking lot.
Father Shaun Whittington said he and his 96 parishioners, mostly teenagers, were on their way home Friday evening from the March for Life in Washington. They had enough gas to keep the buses running and enough DVDs to keep the kids entertained until nearly noon Saturday, when plows finally arrived, Whittington said.
“We’re on a pilgrimage,” he said. “There’s going to be suffering with that.”
Roofs collapsed on a historic theatre in Virginia and a horse barn in Maryland, while seaside towns in New Jersey and Delaware grappled with flooding.
The snow alone would have been enough to bring the East Coast to a halt. But it was whipped into a maelstrom by winds that reached 75 mph at Dewey Beach, Delaware, and Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, the weather service said.
From Virginia to New York, sustained winds topped 30 mph and gusted to around 50 mph. The wind was so strong that scientists reported trouble measuring the snow because it sometimes seemed to blow sideways.
And if that weren’t enough, the storm also had bursts of thunder and lightning. Forecasters saw lightning out the window of the Weather Prediction Center, where meteorologists were camped out.
The ice and snow cancelled more than 4,400 flights on Saturday, bringing the weekend total to 6,300. Airlines hoped to be back in business by Sunday afternoon.
Stranded travellers included Defence Secretary Ash Carter, whose high-tech aircraft, known as the Doomsday Plane, couldn’t land at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland after returning from Europe. Carter was rerouted to Tampa, Florida, where he planned to wait for better weather.
In its wake, the storm also knocked out electricity to thousands of homes and businesses.