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Winter storm barrels up East Coast

A winter storm that brought a rare white Christmas to parts of the South barreled up the East Coast on Saturday night, spawning blizzard warnings for New York to Boston.
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

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.

"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:

    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.

    Emergency workers help a woman from her vehicle after if slid off the road on I-40 West near Black Mountain, N.C. during snow conditions. There were no injuries in the incident. Much of North Carolina was under a winter storm warning. (AP Photo/The Asheville Citizen-Times, John Coutlakis)John Coutlakis / The Asheville Citizen-Times

    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.
    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.

    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."

    '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.
    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.