Storm Affects 30 States, Snarls U.S. Air Travel

Snowman in front of Manhattan's skyline
People take photos of a snowman standing in front of Manhattan's skyline, in Central Park, New York, on Jan. 27, 2011. Photographer: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

A “life-threatening” storm grounded one-fifth of all scheduled flights in the U.S. today as blizzard warnings were posted for nine states, Chicago faced a record-setting snowfall and ice and snow pelted the Northeast.

The storm affects at least 30 U.S. states from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, according to the National Weather Service. President Barack Obama, briefed by emergency officials, promised support and urged residents to be prepared.

“Stay indoors until conditions improve,” the Weather Service office in Oklahoma said in a bulletin. “Strong winds and blinding snow will make travel nearly impossible. This is a life-threatening storm.”

Winter storm warnings and advisories stretch from Maine to New Mexico, while blizzard warnings are posted from Michigan to Oklahoma, according to the Weather Service. A hard freeze warning covers eastern Texas, including Houston, to the Mexican border near Brownsville and a tornado watch extends from Louisiana to Alabama.

Flight Cancellations

The seven largest U.S. airlines, including AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and United Continental Holdings Inc., canceled at least 6,262 of 31,000 scheduled flights today, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. At least 2,450 flights scheduled for tomorrow had been grounded as of about 4 p.m. Eastern time.

American scrubbed 1,900 flights today, or 55 percent of its daily total, as storms hit both its hubs, in Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago, Tim Smith, an American spokesman, said in an interview. It grounded 1,000 for tomorrow.

Airlines operating out of Midway International Airport in Chicago halted operations for the day at 3:30 p.m. local time, and the majority won’t resume until late tomorrow, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Most airlines flying out of O’Hare International will have shut operations by a few hours later, the agency said.

An ice storm warning has been issued for New York City’s northern and western suburbs in the lower Hudson Valley, as well as Connecticut and New Jersey. As much as a half-inch of ice may fall by tomorrow at 6 p.m., according to the bulletin.

Weight of Ice

“Anything greater than a half an inch is significant,” said Jim Connolly, a weather service meteorologist in Upton, New York. “It will cause some kind of weighing down.”

The weather service said tree limbs and power lines may snap under the ice.

The New York City Office of Emergency Management advised commuters that their journeys may be difficult through tomorrow night.

Snow began falling in Chicago at 4:30 a.m. local time and the city could get close to two feet, possibly breaking the record set Jan. 26-27, 1967, when 23 inches fell, according to weather service records.

“The worst conditions are expected between 9 p.m. tonight and 5 a.m. tomorrow morning and during that time travel is expected to become virtually impossible,” Gino Izzi, a weather service meteorologist in Romeoville, Illinois, said in a briefing. “Snowfall rates in some areas will become so extreme snow plows will essentially be useless in keeping the roads cleared.”

Chicago Shutdowns

Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, canceled its evening classes, and the U.S. District Court in Chicago won’t open tomorrow. The storm’s threat shut down early voting in Chicago tomorrow for a successor to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Waves on Lake Michigan are expected to reach as high as 18 feet, with some “occasional waves of up to 25 feet,” according to the weather service. The high waves will cause flooding along the coast, Izzi said.

Commuters jammed Chicago’s Union Station to ride specially added express trains to the suburbs. Metra, the city’s commuter rail carrier, also provided extra service for riders looking to go home early, according to its website.

In Boston, more than a foot of snow may fall in the two-part storm, said Matt Doody, a weather service meteorologist in Taunton, Massachusetts.

A weather service map of possible snow accumulation shows Boston receiving about 13.6 inches with as much as 19.8 inches in western Massachusetts and 18.6 inches in southern New Hampshire.

Boston Snowfall

As of the evening commute, parts of Boston had recorded 8 inches of snow. A second wave of snow will come overnight, said Charlie Foley, a weather service meteorologist in Taunton.

“That storm winds down late Wednesday,” Foley said. “Then we look at the possibility of another storm that may brush us Saturday.”

Yesterday, utilities across the U.S. prepared to respond to the storm.

“High winds and snow build-up can cause extensive damage to power lines,” Chicago’s Commonwealth Edison Company President and Chief Operating Office Anne Pramaggiore said in a statement. “While we can’t prevent outages during such intense weather, our crews are mobilized and prepared to work around the clock.”

Duke Energy in Indiana, which provides electricity to 780,000 customers, was readying crews and making arrangements to call in personnel from other areas to restore any potential power outages, according to a statement post on its website.

“A storm of this size and scope needs to be taken seriously,” Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in an e-mail yesterday.

The weather system features a warm front and wave of low pressure developing south of New York and depositing light snow, sleet and freezing rain, followed tomorrow by a low tracking close to the region and bringing heavier snow, according to Rob Carolan, founding meteorologist of Hometown Forecast Services.

After it leaves, arctic air is expected to drop down into the central part of the country and may even threaten Houston with freezing rain by the end of the week, according to the weather service.

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