Blizzard Hammers The East Coast

REUTERS — A holiday blizzard walloped New York and New England on Friday with up to 3 feet of snow, shutting down airports, closing major highways and causing widespread power outages from the mid-Atlantic states to Maine. At least 28 deaths were blamed on the slow-moving storm, which forecasters said was the worst to hit the East Coast in twelve years.

The swirling blizzard, which drifted north after burying Washington, D.C., in snow 24 hours earlier, turned New York into an eerie white ghost town, as snowdrifts piled high on major avenues and only a handful of people ventured out, some on skis and snowshoes.

City officials declared an emergency, recommending that all nonessential vehicles stay off the roads, and said it might be several days before the city could dig out.

"It’s very pretty, it’s very inconvenient and it’s very expensive," said New York City's Mayor, noting that the city would apply for federal funds to help defray the massive cleanup costs. Up to 20 inches of snow had fallen in Central Park by early evening when the storm unexpectedly picked up in strength, and reports of lightning strikes amidst the storm were reported around 5pm.

Elsewhere, the nation’s capital was paralyzed and in a state of emergency, much of it buried under up to 2 feet of snow. Malls, museums and monuments were closed, and officials announced that all federal offices and schools will be closed today.

The storm wreaked havoc up and down the East Coast and virtually shut down commerce in several states, where stores had been gearing up for heavy business with Christmas just around the corner. Large malls were forced to close from Virginia to Massachusetts, and smaller stores could not open.

Airlines had to cancel virtually all Monday flights out of Florida into the Northeast because major airports were closed. The East Coast closings also forced the cancellation of dozens of flights out of Southern California.

"We’ve handled a lot of complaints. We have a lot of distressed customers," said Steven Faulk, general manager for United Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport, which provided discount hotel coupons for stranded passengers.

By noon, United Airlines reported that nationwide it had scrubbed 358 flights into the Northeast, and Amtrak had to shut down most of its service heading south from New York. Thousands of commuters were stranded at airports from Boston to Miami, and airlines reported that normal flight schedules might not resume until Wednesday.

"I’ve been stuck here all day, and it’s not looking good for tomorrow," a forlorn Maria Foster, trying to get a flight to Florida, told reporters at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. "You know a good hotel?"

The blizzard had become "one huge, powerful mess," according to national weather forecaster Mike Jackson, who said the sprawling disturbance had become a snow-making machine that would "dump and dump and dump."

There were ripple effects far from the center of the storm, which combined cold fronts moving in from the South and mid-Atlantic states: Heavy rains and tornado watches were in effect for parts of Georgia and northern Florida on Saturday.

As the snow kept falling, the governors of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware declared emergencies.

Snow totals were wide-ranging. Forty-nine inches was reported in western Maryland, and 27 inches in West Virginia’s Berkeley County. The Seven Springs ski resort near Champion, in western Pennsylvania, recorded 48 inches.

Weather-related deaths from the storm as it moved across the nation included two in Illinois, one in Nebraska, five in Pennsylvania, six in West Virginia, six in Missouri, one in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in New Jersey and four in Iowa.

With schools and offices closed, families armed with shovels and sleds tunneled out of 3-foot snowbanks, chiseled cars from curbside igloos, then took to the gentle slopes of city parks. Hundreds of plows, bulldozers and salt trucks used the holiday’s empty streets to attack main roads and rail routes of the city and suburbs, working 12-hour shifts in an effort to open the city before today’s morning commute.

In the Boston area, residents who have already endured weeks of snow made preparations as the heart of the storm approached. At the Stop & Shop grocery store in Hingham, the parking lot was filled with cars at 10 a.m., and there were no shopping carts to be found.

People seemed to be shopping like it was the end of the world; carts were overflowing with bread, milk, eggs, cans of soups and other items. As winds howled up to 50 mph on the state turnpike, police warned people to stay off the roads.

Power outages from the storm included 100,000 customers in West Virginia, 62,000 in Ohio, 20,000 in North and South Carolina, and 6,000 in Virginia.

Despite freezing winds and blinding snow, many people were determined to enjoy the extreme weather. Ignoring official requests to stay indoors, some New Yorkers took to the streets for much of the day. Many shoveled snow and dug out buried cars; other rode skis down Broadway, walked quietly through empty downtown canyons and exulted in the novelty of a blizzard that lasted for most of the day and night.

"I’m not going to back away because of a little snow," said David Yaroslavsky, son of Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, as he pulled on a winter hat and scarf and set off from Manhattan’s Upper West Side for a visit to the temporary memorial site for the Midtown Bomb during the President-Elect's visit. "I’ve come all this way, and there’s no such thing as bad weather. Only bad clothes."

In Brooklyn, which received some of the city’s heaviest snowfall, many residents seemed to be heeding the Mayor’s admonition to "chill out" as the storm extended into its second day. Most people said they hadn’t even considered going to work, and on Flatbush Avenue only about one in three shops was open. Shopkeepers said few people were buying, but the atmosphere was festive.

Asad Hussien, 21, spent the morning leaning against the window of his family’s minimarket, watching children skitter past on the snow, dragging one another on sleds. Some of them had removed the wheels from their skateboards and were attempting to snowboard down the sidewalks.

Very few customers had come into the store, Hussien said, and those who did bought only hot coffee and cigarettes.

"No one in is buying anything. People are just playing," he said, gesturing toward the street. "Look at that! Just a million people out there playing, having fun."

Elsewhere, intrepid families ventured into empty neighborhood parks.

Neil and Suzy DeLance of Manhattan’s Upper East Side took their three children and a friend to Carl Schurz Park near the East River and had a snowball fight.

"Who wants to stay indoors on a day like today?" asked Quincy, 8. "This is so much fun."

But her father was grumbling after he spent 30 minutes searching in vain for his 3-year-old son’s white boot, lost in the snow. "Can you imagine doing this?" he asked. "It’s surreal."

Across the street, Frank Ochoa paused to catch his breath as he shoveled away snow that crept up to the windows of his sport utility vehicle. "My girlfriend and me have to drive to Pennsylvania on Wednesday morning," he said. "So I thought we’d get a head start."

A pedestrian paused to commiserate and Ochoa grinned, offering him the shovel: "Hey," he said. "Do you want to make a quick $1,000?"

As darkness fell, there were acts of kindness large and small. Bus driver Raymond Robinson made a slow crosstown run, taking longer than usual.

When he saw a mother and two children floundering toward him in the snowy distance, he waited patiently for them to get in.

"You don’t have the right fare, I’m sorry," he told another passenger who clambered aboard. "But this is not a normal day," he added with a sigh. "Get in."

The winter weather is expected to continue over next week, with snow falling sporadicly up until next Friday.

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