Big snowstorm heading to Philly, blizzard to NYC

Pedestrians help a stranded driver stuck in the snow in Center City after a major snowstorm in January 2016. A similar storm may hit Philly this week.

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A potentially record-breaking winter storm appeared likely to strike the Philadelphia region Monday into Tuesday, bringing about a foot or more of snow to the area and potential blizzard conditions to New York City and coastal Connecticut, the National Weather Service said Sunday.

The Weather Service issued a winter storm warning Sunday afternoon through 4 p.m. Tuesday, saying odds were high that 8 to 12 inches of snow would fall on Philadelphia and its suburbs starting late Monday night, with up to 18 inches in Doylestown, Coatesville, and Reading, said Mitchell Gaines, meteorologist with the Weather Service's regional office in Mount Holly.

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The latest National Weather Service forecast, released early Monday morning, calls for Philadelphia to get 8 to 12 inches of snow through Tuesday evening.

Even with the unpredictability inherent in any such prediction, Gaines said forecasters were becoming increasingly confident that this would be a major storm, the worst of which would likely barrel down on the region during morning rush hour on Tuesday.

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"That Tuesday morning commute looks pretty tricky, to say the least, right now," he said. "This is going to be a high-impact event."

A storm of such magnitude would mark an unusual turn of events in a region where snow has been scarce during an atypically warm winter. It would come two weeks after the warmest February on record and just as daffodils have bloomed, prematurely, across the region.

And, while winter storms are not unusual in March, ones this big are. The storm that holds the record for the area's most snowfall in March happened 24 years ago, to the day.

On March 13, 1993, 11.7 inches fell in Philadelphia and 16.7 inches in Allentown, comparable to what was being forecast on Sunday, Gaines said.

As the forecast became more foreboding, Gov. Wolf issued a statement warning residents in eastern and central Pennsylvania to prepare accordingly by amassing emergency supplies. He said travel restrictions and an emergency declaration remained possibilities.

In Philadelphia, road crews began brining Roosevelt Boulevard on Sunday night. The city Streets Department has 50,000 tons of salt available, and expected to provide details of their storm response in coordination with the Office of Emergency Management on Monday. PennDot crews were already pretreating area highways Sunday in anticipation of the snow. The department planned to deploy 450 trucks to the region to salt and plow roads, a spokesman said Sunday. PennDot officials warned that if the storm models are correct, roads will likely be passable but possibly snow covered. It takes a plow driver up to four hours to complete a cycle on a route, so if snow is falling at an inch an hour, up to four inches could accumulate before a plow comes around for another sweep. 

Several major storm forecasts in recent years triggered a similar gearing up across the region, only never to materialize. Still, residents and officials appeared not ready to shrug off this one as yet another potential dud.

Business was 20 percent higher than normal on Sunday at 13 Shop Rite and Fresh Grocer supermarkets in Philadelphia and Montgomery, Bucks, and Camden Counties, owner Jeff Brown said.

"We’re taking the storm as credible," Brown said.

In fact, his team gambled as early as Saturday night that the forecast was reliable. It placed orders for beefed-up warehouse deliveries so stores would remain stocked with the items that most often fly off shelves in advance of snow storms: milk, bread, eggs, soup, rock salt, shovels, and batteries, Brown said.

"We increased our orders to plan for it," Brown said. "We could be wrong. It could miss us, but the way we look at it is our customers count on us. And we’d rather be wrong and have too much inventory and figure out how to deal with that."

Staff writer Jason Laughlin contributed to this article.