Thursday 12 December 2019

Storm Jonas: 11 dead as 'Monster blizzard' hits US east coast, and grinds New York and Washington DC to a halt

Residents clear snow from their car during a heavy snow fall. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Residents clear snow from their car during a heavy snow fall. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
People visit Central park as snow falls. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
A man battles the wind on a snow covered street in Downtown Washington, DC. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Pedestrians cope with snow covering pavements and streets in Time Square. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)
A heating and cooling company's truck is seen covered in snow during a blizzard in Arlington, Virginia. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Robins roost in a tree during a winter storm in Washington. Reuters/Joshua Roberts

A blizzard with hurricane-force winds brought much of the US East Coast to a standstill on Saturday, dumping as much as three feet of snow, stranding tens of thousands of travellers and shutting down Washington and New York 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. But more was yet to come, with dangerous conditions expected to persist until early Sunday.

In addition to snow and treacherous winds, the National Weather Service predicted up to half an inch of ice for the Carolinas and potentially serious coastal flooding for the mid-Atlantic region.

''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 got some flakes.

Snow fell from the Gulf Coast to the northeastern New England states. In nearly two dozen places, it passed the 20-inch mark by late morning, according to the weather service. Terra Alta, West Virginia, reported 28 inches.

At least 11 deaths were blamed on the weather, most from traffic accidents. The ice and snow made travel treacherous, causing thousands of accidents and cancelling nearly 4,300 flights on Saturday, the bulk of them at airports in the New York City and Washington metro areas. Another 1,235 flights were cancelled for Sunday, according to flight tracking service Flight Aware. Airlines hoped to be back in business by Sunday afternoon.

The long-anticipated storm exceeded expectations, so forecasters increased their snow predictions for New York and points north.

The new estimates were for heavy snow all the way up to just south of Boston, forecaster Patrick Burke said from the weather service's Weather Prediction Centre in College Park, Maryland.

Eighteen to 24 inches were predicted for Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia; and 15 to 20 inches for New York, Burke said. Some areas outside the major cities could get up to 30 inches.

''This is kind of a top 10 snowstorm,'' said weather service winter storm expert Paul Kocin, who co-wrote a two-volume textbook on blizzards. And for New York and Washington this looks like top five, he said. ''It's a big one.''

By midday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced a travel ban in New York City, ordering all non-emergency vehicles off the roads by mid-afternoon. Mayor Bill de Blasio urged Broadway theatres and restaurants to close. The city's commuter rails and above-ground segments of the subway were to shut down too, along with buses.

Cab 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 get him free.

''I've been driving a cab 28 years, but this looks like the worst.'' He parked in the East Village and went home.

In Kentucky, where some places got 18 inches on Friday, hundreds of drivers on a long stretch of Interstate 75 south of Lexington were stranded overnight because of a string of crashes and blowing snow. Crews passed out snacks, fuel and water and tried to move cars one by one. Emergency shelters were opened.

Motorists also were reported stranded along pockets of the Pennsylvania Turnpike near the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel in Somerset County. The National Guard was called to help, said Pennsylvania Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo. In the Washington metro area, nearly two feet of snow was on the ground by Saturday morning, and monuments that would normally be busy with tourists, were mostly vacant. All mass transit was to be shut down through Sunday.

The snow alone would have been enough to bring the East Coast to a halt. But it was whipped into a maelstrom by brutally sharp winds that reached 75mph at Dewey Beach, Delaware, and Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, the weather service reported.

From Virginia to New York, sustained winds topped 30mph and gusted to around 50mph, Mr Burke said.

The wind was so strong that scientists reported trouble measuring the snowfall.

And if that were not enough, the storm had bursts of thunder and lightning.

Forecasters saw lightning out the window of the Weather Prediction Centre, where meteorologists were camped out.

Even before the snow began to fall Friday afternoon, states of emergency were declared. Schools, government offices and transit systems closed early from Georgia to New York.

The ice and snow made travel treacherous, causing thousands of accidents and cancelling nearly 4,300 flights. Airlines hoped to be back in business by Sunday afternoon.

Airlines canceled more than 5,500 flights in the US and beyond this weekend as a blizzard conditions, cold and ice hits much of the US, with East Coast cities feeling the most impact.

The bulk of Saturday's 4,298 cancellations are at airports in the New York City and Washington metro areas, according to flight tracking service FlightAware.

Another 1,235 flights were cancelled for Sunday. Those cancellations centre on Philadelphia, Washington and New York, with airlines essentially shutting down all flights into those cities.

But the snowstorm was greeted happily at Virginia's ski resorts.

''We're thrilled,'' said Hank Thiess, general manager at Wintergreen ski resort in central Virginia, who was expecting 40 inches of dry, powdery snow. ''Going forward, we're set up to have just a terrific second half of the ski season.''

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