A blizzard with hurricane-force winds brought much of the East Coast to a standstill over Shabbos, dumping as much as 3 feet of snow, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and shutting down the nation’s capital and its largest city.
After days of weather warnings, many 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 heavy 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 saw some flakes.
At least 12 deaths were blamed on the weather, most from traffic accidents.
The system was mammoth, dropping snow from the Gulf Coast to New England. By early afternoon, areas near Washington had surpassed 30 inches, according to the weather service’s running totals. The heaviest amount was in Berkeley County, West Virginia, with 33 inches.
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 Center in College Park, Maryland.
Eighteen to 24 inches were predicted for Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia; 24 to 30 inches for areas just north and west of Interstate 95 outside those two cities; and 15 to 20 inches for New York, Burke said.
“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 a top-5, he said. “It’s a big one.”
In Washington, monuments that would normally be busy with tourists were mostly vacant. The steps of the Lincoln Memorial had not been cleared off and looked almost like a ski slope. And at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, statues of soldiers were coated with snow.
Visibility was sharply reduced. On an average day, visitors can see from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument and the Capitol. But after this storm, the Washington Monument was not even visible from the memorial to the 16th president.
All mass transit in the capital was to be shut down through Sunday.
By midday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a travel ban in New York City, ordering all nonemergency vehicles off the roads. Mayor Bill de Blasio urged major venues to close. The city’s commuter rails and aboveground segments of the subway were to shut down too, along with buses.
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, according to the weather service.
From Virginia to New York, sustained winds topped 30 mph and gusted to around 50 mph, Burke said.
The wind was so strong that scientists reported trouble measuring the snowfall.
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 canceled nearly 4,300 flights. Airlines hoped to be back in business by Sunday afternoon.
The snowstorm was greeted happily at Virginia’s ski resorts.
Hank Thiess, general manager at Wintergreen ski resort in central Virginia, said he expected “to have just a terrific second half of the ski season.”
He was expecting 40 inches of dry, powdery snow, perfect for skiing.
“We’re going to have a packed snow surface,” he said, “that will just be outstanding.”