Region paralyzed

Streets were plowed in Center City overnight, but the thin layer of snow that remained turned to ice in some spots as temperatures dropped. (Jonathan Tannenwald/

Another titanic winter storm battered the Mid-Atlantic today, smashing Philadelphia's seasonal snowfall record and paralyzing the region in a blinding whiteout.

For the second time in less than a week, blizzardlike conditions froze virtually all commerce, transportation, and government operations, except emergency services.

Peco Energy said 110,000 of its 1,600,000 customers in the region were without electricity tonight - a number that was expected to grow as tree limbs freighted with snow and ice snapped, short-circuiting power lines. The utility warned that getting everyone's lights back on could take several days.

Fourteen inches of snow had fallen at Philadelphia International Airport by late tonight, the National Weather Service reported. On top of the 28.5 inches recorded Friday and Saturday, that meant the winter of 2009-10 had surpassed by nearly five inches the 65.5-inch total set 14 years ago.

And snow was still falling.

"It's historic," said Tony Gigi, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly. This is the most snow to fall in Philadelphia in the 126 winters for which the weather service has kept score.

On orders from Gov. Rendell, the National Guard and state police closed off the Schuylkill Expressway, the Vine Street Expressway, and the Blue Route. SEPTA ordered buses off streets by 5 p.m., but kept rails and subways running. The airport shut down for the second time this week.

The National Guard and state police delivered blankets and water to some of the 170 drivers who got stuck behind two tractor-trailers that wrecked on I-78 in Berks County. No one was injured in the accident. Only one fatality was reported statewide, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Sleet and snow forced the U.S. Postal Service to suspend operations. Local governments declared states of emergency. Schools closed. Several districts, including all Philadelphia public schools, will remain shut Thursday; Philadelphia archdiocesan schools also will be closed.

So will Philadelphia courts and U.S. District Court. City Council postponed its regular Thursday morning meeting - Council's first weather-caused delay in at least three decades, President Anna C. Verna said. She moved the session to 10 a.m. Friday.

Colleges that rarely close made an exception today, and the University of Pennsylvania; Villanova, Temple, Neumann, Rowan, and West Chester Universities; the University of Delaware; the University of the Sciences; Montgomery County Community College; and Harcum College said they would remain closed Thursday. Bryn Mawr College and Moore College of Art also will be closed Thursday.

"This is very, very unusual," said Temple spokesman Ray Betzner. "There was a real question about the safety of people."

Most businesses declared a holiday, and traffic was sparse. SEPTA said many commuters had stayed home.

But police across the region labored to rescue dozens of motorists who became stranded when their cars veered into drifts. "Even the tow trucks can't get to them," said Cpl. Steven Ranck, spokesman for the Avondale barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police.

Unlike the festive fluff that came down over the weekend, today's snow was heart-attack heavy. The weight of the accumulated snowfalls caused some roofs to cave in.

A portion of the roof of a closed Rite Aid pharmacy in Evesham collapsed before 5:37 p.m., Deputy Fire Chief David Knott said. No one was injured in the collapse, at the Greentown Square Shopping Center. A township building-code official declared the center structurally unsound until further evaluation.

The City of Camden opened two public buildings, including the lobby of the police administration building, to house homeless people whose tent city collapsed under the dense snow.

Atlantic City Electric reported nearly 19,000 homes and businesses without power, concentrated in Cape May County, where most of the 90,000 customers who lost power during Saturday's storm live. Public Service Electric & Gas, New Jersey's largest utility, had 4,700 customers without power.

Peco spokesman Fred Maher said crews were "working feverishly to restore power" to thousands of customers - 49,000 in Bucks County alone.

The record-setting nor'easter was what meteorologists call a "bomb." As the storm intensified off the Delmarva Peninsula, winds reached near-hurricane strength, said Tom Kines, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc.

Heavy snow began Tuesday night as the complex storm approached from the west, and by the early today, 7.8 inches had fallen at the airport, before the precipitation turned to rain.

But that was just the preface.

By late morning, the developing storm was generating cold north winds and yanking the snow line eastward, and blizzard conditions spread across the region, with winds gusting up to 50 m.p.h.

The weather service issued blizzard warnings stretching from Baltimore to New York City. Up to 16 inches fell in parts of western Maryland.

Washington and Baltimore reported their snowiest winters on record. In the nation's capital, federal offices will be shuttered today for a fourth straight day.

Along with the expressway and the Blue Route, Rendell and Emergency Management Director Robert P. French closed the entire lengths of I-83 and I-78, as well as a portion of I-81 in central Pennsylvania.

PennDot officials said the last time the Schuylkill, Blue Route, and Vine Expressway were officially shut down for snow was the Blizzard of 1996 - though many a motorist was seen ignoring flares and "Snow Emergency" signs and risking a ride on the highways.

PennDot deployed 5,400 employees in shifts to operate 2,250 plows and salt trucks statewide, said spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick. The state has 600,000 tons of salt on hand, he said.

The workers are being paid overtime, but Kirkpatrick said he did not know the costs of storm duty. He did say the department had budgeted $245 million for winter services, and could borrow from its spring budget if it needed to.

In Philadelphia, Streets Department crews began Tuesday applying a brine solution - a treatment to prevent icing - to the steepest streets. Mayor Nutter said 480 pieces of equipment were deployed to plow, and 18,000 tons of salt were available.

More than 600 city workers were expected to be used for snow removal and will remain in place Thursday to monitor roadways.

City offices will be closed again on Thursday, Nutter said tonight. He said he expected most streets to be passable by Friday, and encouraged urged residents to shovel their sidewalks and check on elderly neighbors.

Trash collection is to resume Friday, two days behind schedule - Thursday's collections will be done Saturday, and Friday's on Sunday.

"We are asking residents to be patient," said Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson.

Stranded employees filled most available hotel rooms in the city last night. Some companies and institutions set up cots to house essential staff.

The American Red Cross' Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter distributed nearly 600 cots to hospitals and 911 call centers for workers who could not make it home. The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania used 150 cots to help house as many as 400 staffers overnight.

The hospital's emergency room was quiet, but officials expected a wave of patients after the storm. Albert P. Black, Jr., the hospital's chief operations officer, said, "Once the snow goes, we'll get slammed."

Doylestown Hospital was operating under a "Code Red," said spokeswoman Sue Gordon. About 50 nurses, doctors, and technicians have spent the last two nights sleeping on portable beds in conference rooms. The hospital's day-care center was opened overnight to accommodate staff with children.

Philadelphia's snow totals at the airport were eclipsed elsewhere - 17.4 inches in Somerton in Northeast Philadelphia; 21 inches in Perkasie, Bucks County; and 26.1 inches in South Coventry, Chester County, and 19 inchces in Ridley Park, Delaware County. Mount Laurel, in Burlington County, reported 14.5 inches.

Some areas experienced lightning and thunder, said Lee Robertson, a meteorologist at the Mount Holly office of the weather service. Winter thunderstorms are unusual, the signature of an elite snowstorm.

And in this instance, a record-setting one. This is the first winter in which the Philadelphia region has recorded two storms that delivered two feet or more of snow. This is also the most snow to fall in a six-day stretch. And winter is not over.

In Delaware County, Aston Township opened a "warming center" at the community center on Concord Road last night after half the town lost power. No one had arrived by 7, said Assistant Fire Marshal Sean Joyce.

His house was without power, so Joyce, his wife, and their 14-month-old daughter were camped in front of their gas fireplace.

"Quality family time here," he said.

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or