Sunday, December 28, 2014

Storm smashes winter snow record

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.

The National Weather Service reported that 14 inches of snow had fallen at Philadelphia International Airport by 7 last night. On top of the 28.5 inches recorded Friday and Saturday, that meant the winter of 2009-10 had surpassed by nearly 5 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.

Gov. Rendell ordered the Schuylkill Expressway, the Vine Street Expressway, and the Blue Route closed because of treacherous conditions, but expected them to be reopened this morning. SEPTA ordered buses off the streets by 5 p.m., but rail and subway service continued. 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.

The road closings also threatened to delay production of The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News.

Brian Tierney, chief executive officer of Philadelphia Media Holdings L.L.C., which owns the two newspapers, said: "I am urgently reaching out to the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, urging them to allow Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News delivery trucks and their drivers, who have already left their homes for the printing plant, to have access to the roads and use their professional judgment as to whether or not it is appropriate for them to drive.

"This right is guaranteed by a Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency directive. Our drivers have copies of this letter with them. By allowing our drivers to access these roads we will be able to deliver The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News to the readers who depend on our newspapers each day for their news and information. We want to get the papers out."

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 today; Philadelphia archdiocesan schools also will be closed.

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

Colleges that rarely close made an exception today: the University of Delaware; Villanova, Temple, Neumann, Rowan, and West Chester Universities; the University of the Sciences; Montgomery County Community College; and Harcum College said they would remain closed today. The University of Pennsylvania said it would decide before last night was out.

"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 store in 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.

By nightfall, police radios were crackling with reports of downed trees. Limbs freighted with snow and ice snapped, short-circuiting power lines.

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. Peco Energy said 1,400 customers had lost electricity. Public Service Electric & Gas, New Jersey's largest utility, had 4,700 customers without power.

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 morning, 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 today.

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 he did not know the costs of storm duty. He did say the department had budgeted $245 million for winter services, and can borrow from its spring budget if it needs 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 today to monitor roadways.

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

Trash collection is to resume tomorrow, two days behind schedule - today's collections will be done on Saturday, and tomorrow'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's Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter distributed nearly 600 cots to hospitals and 911 call centers for workers who could not make it home.

Doylestown Hospital was operating under a "Code Red" and taking extra measures to make sure enough staff was on hand throughout the storm, 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.

The emergency room was "very quiet," as is typical during the thick of a big storm, she said. Injuries come later.

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.

Some people were positive about the experience. Roseanne McGettigan, a nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital's cardiac unit, was one of only five passengers who got off a PATCO High-Speed Line "rush hour" train at the Westmont station.

She said Center City was beautiful. "All the medical students were out having snowball fights," and her unit's on-call team was set to spend the night, sleeping in beds and stretchers in the Cath Lab. Her husband, Tom, was waiting at the station, the car all warmed up.

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 amaykuth@phillynews.com.

Andrew Maykuth, Angela Couloumbis, and Anthony R. Wood INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
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