Major winter storm barrels up East Coast

December 25, 2010 7:59:58 PM PST
A winter storm that brought a rare white Christmas to parts of the South barreled up the East Coast on Saturday night, with forecasters predicting 6 to 10 inches of snow Sunday for Washington and blizzard conditions for New York City and the New Jersey shore.

Virginia and North Carolina declared states of emergency as crews tried to clear snowy and icy highways. Authorities in Mid-Atlantic states spent Christmas Day preparing for up to a foot of snowfall. And airlines began canceling flights in the Northeast corridor before the intensifying storm descended on the region.

The storm was already scrambling the plans of holiday travelers along the Eastern Seaboard. Motorists will be facing treacherous road conditions in many states Sunday with blowing snow and low visibility, and the snow is likely to strand many air travelers.

Continental Airlines canceled 250 departures from Newark Liberty International Airport outside New York City. United Airlines announced late Saturday that it had canceled 61 Sunday departures from Newark, Philadelphia, New York's LaGuardia and JFK, Boston, Bradley International in Connecticut, Providence, Albany International and Manchester Boston Regional Airport.

"Our concern is tomorrow it's going to get significantly colder," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell told The Weather Channel. "Winds with gusts up to 45 miles per hour will cause blowing snow and that's going to cause the worst of it ... and we're urging extreme caution in travel. Try to get home early and if you don't have to travel don't go."

As of late Saturday evening, the National Weather Service had issued winter weather warnings from north Georgia to southern New England. Winter weather watches were in effect for eastern Tennessee and Kentucky up to West Virginia.

A blizzard warning was issued 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. As much as 18 inches could fall on the New Jersey shore. Heavy snow was also predicted for Philadelphia and Boston.

United Airlines said weather conditions would likely force delays and cancellations at United's hub at Washington Dulles International Airport and at other northeastern airports between Saturday and Monday.

"At this point, the forecast calls for less snow at Dulles" than in the New York area, United spokesman Michael Trevino said in an e-mail Saturday night. "As a result, the team is still working through the plan for that station and whether any pro-active cancellations will be necessary."

Both carriers are waiving fees for one-time changes in affected areas and urged passengers to make changes through their web sites. The Carolinas got their first white Christmas in decades as snow began falling Saturday morning in Asheville, N.C., spread to Raleigh by noon and was forecast to stretch to the coast later in the day.

The weather service had issued winter storm warnings earlier Saturday with forecasts calling for up to six inches of snow in central North Carolina with more in the mountains and less on the coast. In South Carolina, forecasts called for rain turning to snow after dark.

It's the first Christmas snow for the Carolinas since 1989, when a foot fell along the coast. For Columbia, it's the first significant Christmas snow since weather records were first kept in 1887.

In Asheville, the Weather Service said snow fell at the rate of about an inch an hour earlier in the day and mountain roads would be impassable for all but four-wheel drive vehicles. As much as 10 inches could fall by Sunday morning, which would break the previous Christmas Day record of 5.4 inches set in 1969.

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton declared a state of emergency Saturday.

The North Carolina Highway Patrol said most of the roads in and around Asheville were either covered or partially covered with snow and ice as of 6 p.m. Emergency management spokeswoman Julia Jarema said troopers in the two dozen westernmost counties answered 350 calls between 12:01 a.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday. Most of them were wrecks.

In the South Carolina Upstate, rain mixed with a light snow in the late afternoon, but it wasn't causing immediate road problems, said Highway Patrol Lance Cpl. Bill Rhyne.

In Nashville, some travelers who expected a smooth trip on Christmas got a rude surprise.

"We were hoping this was going to be a good day to travel," said Heather Bansmer, 36, of Bellingham, Wash.

She and her husband, Shawn Breeding, 40, had planned to return home on separate flights after a visit to Breeding's family in Bowling Green, Ky. However, Breeding's flight through Atlanta got canceled.

The couple was planning to spend much of Christmas Day in separate airports.

"A white Christmas is not so welcome," Breeding said, as the couple stood in the lobby of the Nashville airport with their luggage in a cart.

Brian Korty at the Weather Service in Camp Springs, Md., said travelers in the northern Mid-Atlantic region and New England might want to rethink Sunday travel plans.

"They may see nearly impossible conditions to travel in," he said. "It would be a lot better for them to travel today than it would be tomorrow."

In Pensacola, Fla., Jena Passut faced a quandary. The 36-year-old magazine writer drove with her husband and two kids from Fairfax, Va., to visit relatives. On Saturday afternoon she worried about how to get back home amid the snow.

"Should we leave on Christmas night? My kids are normally good travelers, but if it's going to take us twice as long, it's going to be hell," she said. "I like a white Christmas as much as anyone, but I don't want to drive in it."

Authorities in the Mid-Atlantic states were preparing for the storm on Christmas Day.

D.C. transportation department spokeswoman Karyn LeBlanc said a few crews would be pre-treating roads Saturday night if necessary. About 200 pieces of equipment will be deployed Sunday in anticipation of snow.

Washington's Metro system had placed crews on standby to remove snow from rail station entrances and platforms if necessary.

Metro says that it will operate on close to a normal rail schedule if less than 6 inches of snow falls. But if snow reaches a depth of eight inches, Metro may suspend rail service above ground.

To the north, Delaware was bracing for a foot of snow. The weather service says snow is likely to begin in the state Sunday morning and end by dawn Monday. Accumulations of between eight and twelve inches were forecast for parts of the state, and a storm warning was in effect from 7 a.m. Sunday to 1 p.m. Monday.

Delaware Emergency Management spokeswoman Rosanne Pack said residents should consider traveling Saturday evening or very early Sunday morning in advance of the snow.

Residents in eastern Pennsylvania were bracing for 8 to 12 inches of snow for Philadelphia and its suburbs during the winter warning period, which begins at 7 a.m. Sunday and runs through 1 p.m. Monday.

Forecasters also were predicting winds of 20 to 30 mph with gusts over 40 mph. They were urging people not to travel if possible because of the expected snow and reduced visibility caused by blowing and drifting snow - echoing a warning issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation earlier in the week.

"If a winter storm does strike, our advice is to avoid traveling unless absolutely necessary - for your own safety," PennDOT Secretary Allen D. Biehler said in a statement. "If you must travel, use common sense, pack an emergency kit, have realistic expectations of road conditions and remember that if winter precipitation is falling, roads will not be completely free of ice and snow."

The snow storm blanketed sections of the Midwest and hampered motorists there on Christmas Eve, before dipping south late Friday.

Delta Air Lines spokesman Kent Landers said 500 weather-related flight cancellations were planned for Saturday nationwide. That included 300 of the 800 scheduled departures from the Atlanta hub.

Only a few hundred people milled about the cavernous terminals at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, many of them recent arrivals from international flights. Passengers were notified Friday when flights were pre-emptively canceled, so most didn't bother to show up. Many chairs were empty, restaurants too.

Some couldn't help but chuckle that the flights were nixed long before the first raindrop or snowflake had fallen. Wet snow didn't begin falling in Atlanta until late Saturday afternoon.

"They canceled hundreds of flights and there hasn't even been a drop of rain," said Stephanie Palmer, who was killing time with her friend Ibrahima Soumano as he awaited a flight to Mali. "This doesn't make sense."

Landers said Delta would decide on possible additional Sunday cancellations as the time approaches. Landers said anyone with travel plans through Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington and Newark, N.J., on Sunday or Monday can change their flight without a penalty as long as they travel by Dec. 29.

AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver said Saturday that the carrier had canceled seven Saturday flights and that afternoon flights from Atlanta would be delayed because of required de-icing of planes. AirTran too offered to waive ticket-change fees for some flights scheduled for this weekend and Monday in the South and Mid-Atlantic.

Southern cities saw varying amounts of snow, depending on whether they were in the storm's path.

The Nashville area had an inch or so of snow overnight, and roads appeared to be clear. There was also snow in northern Alabama.

By Saturday morning, 4 to 5 inches of snow had fallen over several hours in Bowling Green, Ky., according to the Weather Service. Louisville had about an inch.

Louisville last had snowfall on Christmas in 2002, when a half-inch fell.

The Air Transport Association was expecting 44.3 million people on U.S. flights between Dec. 16 and Jan. 5 - up 3 percent over the same period a year ago but still below pre-recession travel volume. The average ticket price was $421, up by 5 percent.

The AAA predicted overall holiday travel to rise about 3 percent this year, with more than 92 million people planning to go more than 50 miles by Jan. 2. More than 90 percent said they would be driving.

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko in Washington; Page Ivey in Columbia; Karen Hawkins in Chicago; Warren Levinson and Verena Dobnik in New York City; David Goodman in Detroit; Eileen Sullivan and Samantha Bomkamp in Washington; Michelle Price in Phoenix; Dylan Lovan in Louisville; Leonard Pallats and Greg Bluestein in Atlanta; and Mark Pratt in Boston.


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