Snow blanketed much of the eastern US yesterday during one of its worst storms in decades, with stores closed, flights grounded and traffic brought to a standstill, as holiday shopping suffered a cold snap.
In the bull’s eye of the deadly weather, Washington — a city more used to political storms than deep snow drifts — shattered a 1932 December snowfall record, with 40cm covering streets and homes.
With more snow forecast to fall on Washington by dawn yesterday, the massive snowstorm stretching 800km across a dozen states is set to become one of the biggest to sock the capital since record keeping began in 1885.
Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty declared a snow emergency, as most mass transit shut down, but expressed confidence the mostly empty city streets would be cleaned up by today.
US President Barack Obama, attending a heated UN summit in Copenhagen where world leaders struggled over a plan to battle global warming, raced home to avoid the worst of the storm that hammered the East Coast with more than 61cm of snow in some places — two days before winter’s official arrival.
After snowplows cleared the runway at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington for the presidential jet, Obama stepped off Air Force One into a heavy snowfall before dawn on Saturday. In a rare move, he was whisked to the White House by motorcade rather than his Marine One helicopter because of the treacherous weather.
By Saturday afternoon, the capital region’s three main airports — Reagan National, Washington Dulles International and Baltimore Washington International — canceled all incoming and outgoing flights, stranding thousands of passengers.
Crews were busy clearing runways overnight in a bid to reopen the airfields by 6am yesterday.
It was bleak news for millions hoping to hit the roads and skies ahead of Christmas on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year.
With many residents forced to stay home and shopping malls shuttered or closing early, the winter wallop was also likely to take a bite out of retail sales on “Super Saturday,” a major shopping day on the last weekend before Christmas.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to put an uplifting spin on vicious Mother Nature.
“Cold weather is here,” Bloomberg was quoted by local media as saying. “Hopefully, we’ll have a little bit of a white Christmas.”
The storm turned much of the East Coast, home to tens of millions of Americans, into a winter wonderland, but the conditions were as perilous as they were scenic, authorities said.
Three people died on roads in Virginia on Saturday, said the state’s department of emergency management (VDEM), with spokesman Bob Spieldenner adding that 3,000 accidents shut down Virginia interstates for several hours. The Virginia Department of Health confirmed one other storm-related death. Emergency services delivered heater meals and 400 bottles of water for stranded motorists, while others were moved to shelters.
“This is a very serious storm,” said Maryland Emergency Management chief Richard Muth, warning people not to drive unless in an emergency.
The monster weather system was moving steadily northward, blanketing cities like Baltimore with roughly 51cm, Philadelphia 40cm, and New York, where the National Weather Service (NWS) forecast near-blizzard conditions and as much as 40cm of accumulation by later yesterday.