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East Coast storm snarls post-Christmas travel 

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

The first widespread blizzard of the season slammed the northeastern United States on the heavily traveled Christmas weekend Sunday, canceling more than 1,500 flights, shutting the Amtrak passenger rail and challenging motorists on icy roads.

The Atlantic storm unleashed powerful winds as it moved up the coast, dumping a foot of sideways-blowing snow on some areas with more expected up to the morning commute Monday. Massachusetts and Maine declared states of emergency with only essential workers asked to work in Boston.

New York area airports including JFK International were closed Sunday evening but were expected to reopen early Monday as the brunt of the storm moved north.

In one sign of the severity of the storm, an NFL football game scheduled for Philadelphia was postponed, forcing the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings to reschedule their game for Tuesday.

The sport loves to glorify great games in snow, but public safety became an issue with the weather service forecasting 15 to 25 inches of snowfall in many areas.

On one of the busiest travel days of the year, the U.S. National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings along the coast from Maine down to New Jersey with winter storm warnings in effect for nearly the entire East Coast.

The air travel nightmare was made worse when Amtrak canceled passenger rail service between New York and Boston.

"We left the day after Christmas to avoid the Christmas craze. I guess that didn't work out so well," said Colleen James of Montclair, N.J. She, her husband, their two young children and their dachshund were at Newark Airport trying to reach family in Iowa, but their connecting flight to Chicago was delayed more than two and a half hours.

Her husband, Graham James, was resigning himself to postponing their trip a month. "Now we're worried about just driving home because of the crazy snow," Graham James said.

Bus companies also canceled routes up and down the East Coast, affecting thousands of travelers.

Kate Lindquist, on her way home from New Hampshire to New York City, was greeted with a handwritten sign at a Boston bus station: "Sorry, we are closed today."

"To have this happen on a Sunday during a holiday weekend is incredibly frustrating," she told the AP in an e-mail.

Delta Air Lines canceled 850 flights, about one-sixth of its schedule, and American Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Continental Airlines canceled roughly 265 flights each and United Airlines 110, airline representatives said.

"We expect there will be cancellations in the Northeast, including New York and Boston, through the morning tomorrow," Kent Landers, Delta spokesman, said. "As we get into the afternoon and certainly by Tuesday morning we are aiming to resume normal operations throughout the East Coast."

A spokesman for United Airlines, said it could add more flights Monday to accommodate stranded passengers, but final decisions were due later in the evening.

U.S. Airways began canceling flights Saturday evening and canceled more Sunday for a total of 679 mainline and regional express flights. It canceled 110 Monday flights, mainly in Northeast cities including Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

The earlier cancellations were being done to try to avoid both passengers and crews getting stranded at airports, said spokesman Jim Olson.

Frustrated travelers
At Washington's Reagan National Airport, Rob Kotlarz of Surrey, England, was trying to fly his children Sofia and Stefan to Orlando, Fla., to visit Disney World.

"Of all the flights to Orlando today the only one that was cancelled was our 3:10 p.m. ... and the US Airways help line was impossible," he said. "But we were expecting America to show us how to handle weather. We showed up seven hours early so we could be here. In this digital age why can't an airline handle it better?"

In London, Heathrow Airport was open Sunday, but warned on its website of flight cancellations and delays due to bad weather in the U.S. Fifteen British Airways flights out of Heathrow to the U.S. were canceled, including ones to New York's JFK airport, Newark, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington Dulles airport.

The Northeast was getting the brunt of the storm. Forecasters issued a blizzard warning 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. 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. A blizzard warning is issued when snow is accompanied by sustained winds or gusts over 35 mph.

Officials warned travelers to stay off the roads. "The roads are slippery and the visibility is poor," Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano told New York's Channel 2.

After the southern United States was hit with a rare "White Christmas" Saturday, the snowstorms plowed to the northeast, where the major coastal cities were engulfed in blowing snow.

Traffic moved slowly on the region's highways, though New York-area bridges and tunnels remained open and in good order, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said. Some bridges had reduced speed limits imposed.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter declared a snow emergency as of 2 p.m. Sunday, and he urged residents to stay off the roads.

In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino declared a snow emergency that bans parking on all major streets, and the New England Aquarium bubble-wrapped its four 5-foot-tall penguin ice sculptures to protect them from the wind and snow.

More than 2,400 sanitation workers were working in 12-hour shifts to clear New York City's 6,000 miles of streets. Not that Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted people to use them.

"I understand that a lot of families need to get home after a weekend away, but please don't get on the roads unless you absolutely have to," Bloomberg said.

In Rhode Island, emergency officials encouraged businesses to let employees report to work late Monday, saying road conditions for the early morning commute Monday would be treacherous.

The snow was easier to enjoy for people with no place to go. As the wind swirled snow through the doors of a Brooklyn supermarket, New Yorkers hurried to pick up a few staples before heading back home to hunker down.

Two feet of snow fell in the Northeast, snarling post-Christmas travel and creating headaches in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and beyond.

"I'm seeing it as a great excuse to stay in and relax and drink tea," said Toni Gifford, who works in academics and has the week off.

"Love snowy days when I don't have to go anywhere. Staying in — just me and my cozy new socks," author Neesha Meminger wrote on Twitter from her home in the Bronx.

She told the AP she's able to savor the moment because her children, ages 6 and 9, are on holiday break: "If this was during the school week, I would be cursing."

The weather deterred some people from hitting day-after-Christmas sales, but that appeared to be a relatively light blow for retailers coming off a strong shopping season.

"People will just wait a day to do exchanges and use their gift cards. It's no big deal," said Greg Maloney, CEO of the retail practice of Jones Lang LaSalle, which manages malls across the country.

The monster storm is the result of a low pressure system off the North Carolina coast and was strengthening as it moved northeast, according to the National Weather Service.

Travel misery began a day earlier in parts of the South, which was hit with a white Christmas for the record books. Columbia, S.C., had its first significant Christmas snow since weather records were first kept in 1887. Atlanta had just over an inch of snow — the first measurable accumulation on Christmas Day since the 1880s.

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

"We're busy," Ryan Dean of Dean's Wrecker Service in Raleigh, N.C., said Sunday. "We've been out since 3 in the morning pulling people out of the ditch."

The National Weather Service said 8.5 inches of snow fell in Franklinton, N.C., about 30 miles north of Raleigh, from Saturday through Sunday.

Diane Smith, 55, said her power was out for about four hours there Sunday morning, but she and her husband have a generator. Relatives, including two grandchildren, who live nearby came over for breakfast and to get warm before going home after power was restored.

"It's beautiful," Smith said. "As long as I have power, I love it."