Video: Snow threatens to make a mess of holiday travel

  1. Closed captioning of: Snow threatens to make a mess of holiday travel

    >>> good evening. merry christmas to you. while americans have been celebrating the national weather service is keeping a close watch on a massive storm that could cause some major headaches for holiday travelers in the air and on the road. it has already dropped snow in a region that almost never sees that. and more than a foot of snow is in the forecast for parts of the northeast. the brunt of the storm is expected to hit at the height of the homeward travel rush. nbc's peter alexander joins us tonight from new york's laguardia airport where they are bracing for the storm. peter?

    >> reporter: kate, good evening to you. merry christmas . this may be the best time to get out of town before the storm has arrived and frankly, while the airports are still working. a blizzard is expect in the much of the northeast. new york, new jersey, connecticut, rhode island , and massachusetts. sometimes a white christmas is not so welcome. in atlanta, just the anticipation of wicked weather crippled travel at the world's byiest airport. with 550 flights canceled today alone and hundreds of others grounded nationwide.

    >> it is bad. the flight should have been canceled.

    >> we can't do anything about it.

    >> reporter: nashville in the grips of the coldest december in decades, saw a fresh inch of snow. slick roads are proving treacherous for drivers from alabama to the carolinas where winter storm warnings are in effect. snow is a rare holiday sight across much of the southeast. the first christmas day snowfall in nashville since 1993 . in atlanta, it has been 128 years. today, birmingham recorded its first white christmas ever. while it may be a novelty for some --

    >> this is my first time in 40 years of my life have i been a christmas snow .

    >> reporter: the powerful winter blast is threatening to disrupt the end to the holiday weekend for millions along the east coast . forecasters warn the storm will march from north carolina toward massachusetts, packing heavy snow and punishing winds with gusts up to 50 miles an hour.

    >> this storm is certainly the real deal. especially in the case of north carolina . five or six inches can be a major issue. in this case you're talking ten inches, in some cases, more.

    >> reporter: with conditions already deteriorating, the timing couldn't be worse. millions of americans are expected to drive home from their holiday destinations.

    >> it could be a big mess across the east coast . so we're advising that families get out early, listen to your forecast, and be prepared.

    >> reporter: a festive holiday wrapping up with a less than festive forecast. and rail service is also being affected. tonight amtrak has announced that it has had some cancellations on some routes between washington, d.c. and virginia. you'll want to check ahead.

    >> peter alexander at laguardia airport . thank you.

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/26/2010 1:44:47 AM ET 2010-12-26T06:44:47

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, the New Jersey shore and eastern Massachusetts.

Airlines canceled hundreds of Sunday flights in the Northeast corridor, with more likely to come as the storm intensifies.

Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina declared states of emergency early Sunday or Saturday night. As North Carolina road crews tried to clear snowy and icy highways, Mid-Atlantic officials spent Christmas Day preparing for up to a foot of snow, plunging temperatures and high winds.

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"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."

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 Sunday departures from Newark Liberty International Airport outside New York City. United Airlines announced late Saturday that it had canceled dozens of Sunday departures from Newark, Philadelphia, New York's LaGuardia and JFK, Boston and other airports. AirTran also canceled flights, as did Southwest Airlines, mostly in or out of Washington Dulles, Baltimore and Newark.

Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said most of the cancellations were for the afternoon, and that flights in New York and Boston would also likely to be affected. More decisions will be made Sunday morning.

Most carriers were waiving fees for one-time changes in affected areas and urging passengers to make changes through their websites.

The monster storm is the result of a low pressure system that will intensify off the North Carolina coast on Sunday morning and strengthen into a major storm as it moves northeast, according to the National Weather Service.

NYC blizzard warning
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 with wind gusts over 40 mph. A blizzard warning was also in effect for Rhode Island and most of eastern Massachusetts including Boston, with forecasters predicting 15 to 20 inches of snow from noon Sunday to 6 p.m. Monday. A blizzard warning is issued when snow is accompanied by sustained winds or gusts over 35 mph.

Early Sunday, winter storm warnings covered northern Georgia, the Carolinas, Washington, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and the eastern sections of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. Winter weather advisories were in effect for eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, West Virginia and northwest Virginia.

The Weather Channel earlier provided these snow forecasts:

  • Atlanta, Ga.: 1-3 inches on Saturday, with the heaviest amounts north of the city. Some 3-6 inches expected in north Georgia mountains.
  • Charlotte, N.C.: 3-6 inches on Saturday through Sunday.
  • Raleigh, N.C.: 5-9 inches Saturday night and Sunday.
  • Norfolk, Va.: 6-10 inches Saturday night through Sunday night.
  • Washington, D.C.: 2-5 inches on Sunday.
  • Philadelphia, Pa.: 5-10 inches on Sunday.
  • New York, N.Y.: 10-15 inches on late Sunday through Monday. Significant blowing and drifting snow with north winds of 20-30 mph and gusts over 40 mph.
  • Boston, Mass.: 12-18 inches on Sunday night though Monday evening. Some sleet or freezing rain possible as well. Significant blowing and drifting snow with north winds 25-40 mph and gusts over 50 mph.

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

"We know many people are traveling for the holidays and we want everyone to be extremely cautious,” said state Emergency Management Director Doug Hoell, according to NBC station WXII. “Anyone who is thinking of driving during the next few days, should pay careful attention to the weather and traffic forecasts before heading out.”

The North Carolina Highway Patrol said most of the roads in and around Asheville were either covered or partially covered with snow and ice.

"If the storm affects your area, please stay off the roads and contact local authorities if help is needed," McDonnell said in a prepared statement.

A similar warning was issued in Delaware.

D.C. gets ready
In the Washington area, emergency management officials were urging residents to get ready for approaching snow.

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.

Image: Woman helped from car that crashed in snow
John Coutlakis  /  The Asheville Citizen-Times via AP
Emergency workers help a woman from her vehicle after if slid off the road on Interstate 40 near Black Mountain, N.C., on Saturday. There were no injuries in the incident. Much of North Carolina was under a winter storm warning.

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

Father up the Eastern Seaboard, Delaware was bracing for a foot (30 centimeters) of 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 Connecticut Emergency Management and Homeland Security Department issued an alert for a major winter storm that will have a major impact on road and air travel.

Airlines cancel flights
Delta Air Lines and AirTran also waived fees for travelers needing to rebook flights in regions affected by the weather.

Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said 500 weather-related flight cancellations were planned for Saturday nationwide.

That included 300 of the 800 scheduled departures from the Atlanta hub. He recommended that passengers not travel by air in the Southeast on Christmas if they can help it.

AirTran canceled eight Saturday flights and 44 Sunday flights from Washington and Baltimore to New York and Boston.

Both airlines encouraged passengers to monitor their websites, and both offered to waive ticket-change fees for some flights scheduled for this weekend in the South and Mid-Atlantic.

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

The arrival and departure boards for flights were awash with red "canceled" signs.

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Some couldn't help but chuckle that the flights were nixed long before the first raindrop or snowflake had fallen. Snow didn't begin falling in Atlanta until 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."

Travelers could also see airport screeners taking a closer look at empty insulated beverage containers like thermoses because air carriers were alerted about a potential terror tactic involving them, an administration official said.

South sees snow
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.

By late Saturday morning, 4 to 5 inches of snow had fallen over several hours in Bowling Green, Ky.

Louisville — which last had snow on Christmas in 2002, when a half-inch fell — had about an inch Saturday morning.

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Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said people traveling by car on the East Coast over the holidays should check the weather forecasts.

"The fact is Mother Nature is going to be a big factor" in holiday travel, he said. "She's calling the shots this holiday season and in many places it will be very tough going." He said motorists should make sure their car is ready, especially their tires, and that they have enough windshield wiper fluid.

"It doesn't take much in the Mid-Atlantic area to cause mayhem," Anderson said.

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.

Said Anderson of the storm: "The timing is really bad."

Weather.com: Get the latest Christmas forecasts

'Sliding around' in Midwest
On Friday, the system blanketed parts of the Midwest, hampering motorists there on Christmas Eve, and more snow was falling there on Saturday.

In Minnesota, the storm brought 6 inches of snow Friday to Minneapolis and St. Paul. It pushed the monthly total there to 33.4 inches, topping the previous December record set in 1969.

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The snow made traveling tough Friday in northeastern Iowa, where the bulk of the storm hovered. Cedar Rapids received more than 7 inches of snow.

Scott and Lori Whiting left Chicago for Colorado Springs, Colo., with their nine children Thursday evening.

By morning, they had only reached Des Moines, a trip that normally takes about four hours, Lori Whiting said.

"The cars are really sliding around up there," Lori Whiting said. "It's kind of slushy. Some parts it's packed, and you don't think it's going to be slick and all of a sudden your car is fishtailing."

Scott Whiting got into a fender bender at a Des Moines truck stop. Still, the family was in good spirits and the children were singing carols.

Lori Whiting said they were hoping to make it to Colorado Springs for Christmas Eve.

"Depending on the number of potty breaks, you understand," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: Winter wonderland

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  1. Horning in

    Sledders in horned helmets glide to the finish line of the of the traditional horn sledge race in a valley near the Bavarian village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. More than 90 sleds took part in the traditional event on Jan. 6. (Christof Stache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Frost and fireworks

    Fireworks explode over ice sculptures during the official opening of the Harbin International Ice and Snow festival in the northern Chinese city of Harbin. (David Gray / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Stripes and snow

    Tigers prowl the snowy Siberia Tiger Park in Harbin, China, on Jan. 7. The park is one of the largest breeding centers for endangered Siberian tigers. (How Hwee Young / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dome to a turn

    An ice sculpture mimics the architecture of Saint Basil Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square on Jan. 5. (Yuri Kadobnov / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Frosted forest

    Horses pull a sledge through snow-covered woods in the eastern German ski resort of Oberhof on Jan. 5. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. River floe

    A Ukrainian man walks on the frozen Dnieper River in Kiev, Ukraine, on Jan. 3. Temperatures in the Ukrainian capital dropped to 28 degrees. (Sergei Chuzavkov / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Horsey hoarfrost

    Frost covers the eyelashes of a horse in the eastern German ski resort of Oberhof, Jan. 5. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Peaking out

    Clouds and blowing snow form a halo around Mount Rainier as seen from Seattle on Dec. 30. (Elaine Thompson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Walking in a winter wonderland

    Two people walk through a band of heavy lake-effect snow falling near Shaker Heights, Ohio, on Jan. 5. (Amy Sancetta / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Sled racers

    A father sleds with his daughter near Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 25. (Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Walking on thick ice

    A worker walks on a snow sculpture featuring camels prior to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival in China on Dec. 24. The 27th Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival kicks off on Jan. 5. (Sheng Li / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Wake-up call

    A man swims in a partially frozen pond as another prepares to jump in after snowfall at Hampstead Heath in London on Dec. 19. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Picture perfect

    A snow covered Stormont estate is pictured in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Dec. 17. (Peter Muhly / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mirrored beauty

    Fresh snow on the trees in the Harz mountain range in Sonnenberg, Germany, Nov. 27. (Frank May / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Wild nature

    Deer are seen in a pasture as snow covers the landscape near Schinnen, southern Netherlands, Dec. 17. (Ermindo Armino / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Super snowman

    A 31-foot snowman dubbed "Milocinek," who wears a barrel for a hat and a road safety cone for his nose, greets children in Pierwoszow village near Trzebnica, Poland, on Dec. 11. (Grzegorz Hawalej / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Black swans

    Two swans move across the water during a spell of frosty fog in the Oslofjord, Norway, on Dec. 7, 2010. (Larsen, Hakon Mosvold / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Bread bath

    Ducks fight for bread on the River Kelvin in Glasgow, Scotland, on Dec. 7, 2010. (Andy Buchanan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Winter's web

    Hoar frost clings to a spider's web around Pickmere Lake in the Cheshire countryside in Knutsford, United Kingdom on Dec. 3. Heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures have severely disrupted Britain's infrastructure. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. White vista

    Roofs in the old town of Bern, Switzerland are covered by snow on Dec. 2. Heavy snowfalls hit large parts of Central Europe. (Peter Klaunzer / Keystone via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Cold canopy

    A man skiis in the Thuringian Forest in Oberhof, Germany on Dec. 2. Large parts of Germany were hit by heavy snowfalls and icy winds. (Jens Meyer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Stroll noir

    People walk along the Moskva river at the outskirts of Moscow on Dec. 2 as temperatures plummet to -23 degrees Celsius (-9 degrees Fahrenheit). (Mikhail Metzel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Crystal clear

    Snow crystals appear on the window of a car in Bayreuth, southern Germany, on Dec. 2. Snow blanketed the country, disrupting traffic but also bringing good winter sports conditions. (David Ebener / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Full steam ahead

    A steam engine makes its way across the snow-covered landscape after fresh snowfall near the eastern German city of Wernigerode on Nov. 22. (Matthias Bein / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Rose hips on ice

    Rose hips are covered with an icinglike layer of snow in the southwest of Bavaria in Stoettgen, Germany, Nov. 22. (Karl Josef Hildenbrand / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Let it snow

    Snow covers the 'Pepiniere' park in Villers-les-Nancy, France, Nov. 29. (Alexandre Marchi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Grin and 'bear' it

    A Kamchatka brown bear rests in the first snow at the zoo in Gelsenkirchen, western Germany, Nov. 29. (Martin Meissner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Snowfight!

    Children have a blast during a snowball fight in Lyon, central France, Wednesday, Dec. 1. (Laurent Cipriani / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Slippery when wet

    Snow-covered rooftops are pictured in this general view of Lyon, southeastern France, as winter weather with sub-freezing temperatures hits the country, Dec. 1. (Robert Pratta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Walking in a winter wonderland

    A man goes for a walk through the snow-covered landscape near the southern German city of Altdorf. (Karl-josef Hildenbrand / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Snow buddy

    Brox the cocker spaniel runs through the snow at Scotch Corner, northern England, Nov. 29. (Nigel Roddis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Frost on!

    A fisherman casts his line in Moscow River, covered in frosty fog, with the air temperature at about -13 degrees Celsius (8.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in Moscow, Nov. 29. (Denis Sinyakov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Blinded by the light, and snow

    Blowing snow and freezing temperatures face drivers as they head west on Highway 1 from Calgary, Alberta, Nov. 29. (Mike Blake / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Clearing for takeoff

    Snow plows clear part of the runway at Edinburgh airport, Scotland Nov. 29. (David Moir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Over the fields and through the snow

    A horseman rides a horse between snow-covered fields in Muehlethurnen, near Bern, on Nov. 26. (Michael Buholzer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Just ducky

    A duck rests on a frozen lake with the air temperature at about minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit) on the outskirts of Minsk, Dec. 1. (Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Silent night, twinkling lights

    A snow-covered cabin is lit by Christmas lights along the shoreline of Lake Louise after sunset in Alberta, Nov. 29. (Mike Blake / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Lights all aglow

    A lamp covered with frozen snow shines on top of the Feldberg mountain near Frankfurt, central Germany, Nov. 30. (Michael Probst / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Snow crossing

    A man crosses a bridge on the Niviglio river in a snowstorm on Dec. 1, in Robecco sul Naviglio, near Milan, Italy. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Sledder's delight

    Rachel Douglass (top) and Sophie Coatsworth sledge downhill at the Town Moor in Newcastle, northern England Nov. 29. (Nigel Roddis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Wearing their woolens

    Sheep stand on a snow-covered meadow in Olching, west of Munich, Germany, during heavy snowfall in Bavaria, Nov. 29. (Michaela Rehle / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Arctic oasis

    Landscape is covered in snow on Nov. 29, at the Schlaubetal natural park near Mixdorf, eastern Germany. (Patrick Pleul / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Participants wearing helmets with horns
    Christof Stache / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (42) Winter wonderland
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    Slideshow (15) California storm

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