Making up for a remarkably mild winter, the first major snowstorm of the season charged up the East Coast on Saturday, disrupting the lives of millions as officials warned of more than 2 feet of snow in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio called it “very likely one of the worst snowstorms in our history.”
Officials imposed a travel ban in and around New York City to keep drivers off streets in the city and roads like the Long Island Expressway. De Blasio called on businesses to close and said that drivers caught on the city’s streets would be “subject to arrest.”
The storm had already brought a long stretch of the country, including major cities like Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, to a standstill. Suburban commuter rails in New York were shut down, as were the city’s public bus service and elevated subway lines.
From Tennessee to North Carolina and north along the Interstate 95 spine, those who persisted found the going slow and treacherous. In places, long-haul trucks lined up behind snowplows and some cars mistook entrance ramps for exits. Officials throughout the Mid-Atlantic region warned that it could be days before residents finished digging out. In New York state, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency and urged residents to stay home. Governors in at least nine other states did the same as road crews from Nashville to New York did battle with what the National Weather Service called a “potentially crippling winter storm.”
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”It’s clearly significant,” said Faye Barthold, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s New York area office. “You don’t typically get three-inch-an-hour snowfall rates, but this system is so dynamic and has all that energy.”
The storm — blustery in some places, blinding in others — was a swirling, sprawling mass with a reach of nearly 1,000 miles. It had already largely immobilized Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia on its way to New York. It all but stopped airline and railroad travel, flooded low-lying beaches and brought down trees and power lines, leaving thousands without electricity. In New York City, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority suspended bus service at midday and above ground subway service a few hours later. In New Jersey, officials suspended most public transit, including commuter rail service, light rail service and buses.
The storm glazed roads and varnished trees. It also walloped the Mid-Atlantic region with destructive force. At least nine people died in highway accidents. The ocean poured into shore towns in New Jersey: In Sea Isle City, floodwaters laden with chunks of ice surged down the streets.
By arriving in New York on a Saturday, the storm gave the city a break. There was no rush-hour commute to contend with. Nor did officials have to wrestle with whether to close schools. On the streets, traffic was sparse, with taxis a rare sight in Manhattan. For once, there was no urgency to the city’s usual get-up-and-get-going rhythms. “Unless it is urgent, stay off the roads,” de Blasio said. “It’s as simple as that.”
The storm slammed Washington on Friday and continued through the night amid reports of “thunder snow.” As television newscasters predicted a “100 percent chance of snowball fights,” Mayor Muriel Bowser repeated a solemn plea: Stay indoors, she said on Saturday, warning that the storm was not over yet. With another 6 to 10 inches expected, streets needed to be clear for emergency vehicles, she said.
“There are too many people on the streets, both driving and walking,” Bowser said at a news conference. “Please, please stay home.”
New York awoke to a wall of white. The music of chains clanking on snowplows and buses provided a muffled accompaniment to the day, the snow quieting the noise against the pavement. Most of the buses – when they were still operating – were empty, and pedestrians, realizing they had the streets to themselves, stepped off sidewalks and walked down the middle of usually busy avenues.
There were other sounds
— the scraping of shovels on cold pavement, the whine of snow blowers clearing narrow sidewalk passes and the achy groan of snow shovelers who did it the hard way, only to ask themselves why.
“It’s not worth it,” said Mike Diakakis, the foreman at an apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “It’s coming down as fast as we clear it away.”
That did not stop those who had destinations – and perhaps hopes of a sled run or a snowball fight – in mind.
“It’s fun,” said Beth Kastner, on the way to a romp in Central Park with her dog, a 5-year-old Labrador mix named Nala. “You can’t sit in an apartment all day with a large dog. That’s kind of a nightmare. She'll be OK, and I'll be happier.”
Saturday had begun with subways and buses running in New York, but Cuomo said buses were “having significant issues” and that some commuter trains faced equipment problems. Even before he announced that bus service was being halted, some passengers reported long waits in the cold, and as the noon cutoff approached, they worried that they would be stranded.
Oscar Garcia, who lives in East Elmhurst, Queens, stood in the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue station, waiting and watching. He did not like what he saw: As his bus pulled in, the driver changed the sign to “not in service.”
That only added to Garcia’s frustration. He had been on his way to his job at an Italian restaurant in Rego Park when his boss called to say the restaurant would be closed for the day.
The storm stranded airline passengers up and down the East Coast, with 4,726 flights canceled on Saturday and 1,180 canceled for Sunday, according to Flightaware.com, a website that tracks such things. At La Guardia Airport, there were no lines at security checkpoints and no baggage carousels rumbling: With virtually no flights coming in, there was no baggage to unload and there were no passengers to claim it.
Those forced to wait at the airport killed time. A crew of workers in snow gear played poker at a food-court table, and Mykhaylo Komar, an artist from Ukraine, fretted. He and his wife were scheduled to fly to Miami for a six-day cruise to Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.
“Snow,” Komar said, shaking his head. “Very big problem.”
As of 1 p.m., 16.2 inches of snow had fallen at La Guardia Airport, the National Weather Service said.
Some people took the warnings seriously and stayed indoors. Some did not. Ron Hickey, the manager of a Lowe’s home-improvement store, said there were two kinds of customers on Saturday: “the overpreparers and the people coming last second saying, ‘Oh, no!’” Those in the first category, he said, were buying the usual stuff people buy on a Saturday — doors, light bulbs, plungers. The other kind was buying what the first kind had bought when they heard the storm warnings on Friday — shovels, salt and batteries.
Chris Rudney, the general manager of Beacon Wines and Spirits, on Broadway at 74th Street in New York City, had an explanation for sparsely filled stores, his own included. Judging by his blockbuster sales on Friday, people were home, having a drink.
“I guess,” he said, “staying inside is worthy of celebration.”