‘Historic’ Snowstorm May Cause Northeast Outages, Delays

Heavy snow, travel disruptions and power failures are possible from a “historic” nor’easter that threatens to drop 2 feet of snow starting tomorrow across eastern Massachusetts and almost a foot in New York City.

Boston may receive 24 inches (61 centimeters) of snow as the coastline is pounded by high waves and wind gusts as high as 50 miles (80 kilometers) per hour, according to the National Weather Service. New York City may get 10 inches of snow and blizzard conditions are likely to envelop Suffolk County on Long Island, said Tim Morrin, a weather service meteorologist.

The storm arrives near the 35th anniversary of the Blizzard of 1978, which killed 99 people, destroyed 2,000 homes, drove 10,000 residents into shelters and paralyzed eastern Massachusetts and northern Rhode Island for a week, according to the weather service.

“For Boston, this is going to be a top-five storm, this could come in at number three all-time in records going back to the 1880s,” said Rob Carolan, owner and meteorologist of Hometown Forecast Services in Nashua, New Hampshire. “Boston usually doesn’t see 2 feet of snow and it has a good chance of doing it this time around.”

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino canceled school across the city of 625,087 tomorrow and asked people to work at home if possible.

“We have a significant storm heading this way,” Menino said at a city hall news conference. “Stay home, stay off the streets.”

Airline Waivers

United Continental Holdings Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and other carriers issued travel waivers that allow passengers to change their plans without penalty.

The nor’easter will develop as a storm from the U.S. Gulf Coast merges with one crossing from the Midwest. As the storm from the Midwest approaches tomorrow, light snow will start to fall that may leave an inch on the ground before tapering off, Carolan said.

In the early afternoon, the nor’easter will begin to strengthen, setting off a second round of snow and rain that will intensify as the day goes on, he said. The precipitation will start in New York and then spread across New England into Boston by late in the day.

Massachusetts Transit

“I am telling people to get where you got to go around noon on Friday because from there after everything goes downhill,” said Alan Dunham, a weather service meteorologist in Taunton, Massachusetts. “The potential is there for this to be a historic winter storm for southern New England.”

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which runs Boston’s commuter rail, buses and subways, said it will cut back on service if the storm gets too severe.

A blizzard watch, meaning winds could rise above 35 mph for three hours while visibility drops to a quarter-mile, is in place from Massachusetts to Long Island starting tomorrow afternoon.

A winter storm watch extends from Maine to Pennsylvania. A hurricane-force wind watch has been posted for the waters off the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts, where gusts may top 70 mph and waves rise to 10 feet.

Across Long Island, wind gusts of 60 mph are possible tomorrow night, Morrin said. Boston may get raked by gusts as intense as 55 mph, Dunham said.

Blackouts Possible

“There is the possibility of widespread power outages,” Dunham said. “People should go ahead and make sure they have batteries and go to the ATM and make sure they have some cash. Some of these power outages could be prolonged.”

Utilities from New Jersey to Massachusetts urged customers to stock bottled water as well as canned or dried food to endure long blackouts. Blizzards and ice storms block roads, impeding repair crews, Public Service Enterprise Group’s PSE&G utility in New Jersey said in a statement.

“Depending on the severity of the storm, outage could last for one to three days,” Kristine Snodgrass, a spokeswoman for the company, said today in an e-mail.

Connecticut Light & Power, a unit of Northeast Utilities and that state’s largest utility, hasn’t estimated low long blackouts may last, Tricia Taskey Modifica, a spokeswoman, said today in an interview.

Utility Crews

Boston utility NStar, another Northeast Utilities unit, is moving crews, trucks and replacement poles and wires to Cape Cod and the island of Martha’s Vineyard expecting travel will be difficult tomorrow, Michael Durand, a spokesman, said in an a message. It has ordered electrical line crews and tree-trimmers from six states including Wisconsin and Georgia, he said.

“There’s no way to accurately predict the level of damage that will be caused by this or future storms,” Durand said. All damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in October has been permanently repaired, so that the power system is “in top working condition,” he said.

Public Service also has repaired all equipment damaged by Sandy, Snodgrass said.

The areas closest to the coast have the greatest chance of losing power because the snow will be wet and heavy and stick to branches and power lines, Carolan said.

“In the coastal areas, it is going to be like plaster and that, with the wind, does have a tendency to cause the power outages,” Carolan said.

NYC Forecast

The forecast for New York City is difficult because warm air may flow into the region, Morrin said. That would change the snow to rain and reduce accumulations.

“The city is right on the razor’s edge,” he said. “Any change in the track will determine if they get more or less.”

Directly north and east of New York, however, accumulations are sure to rise, Morrin said. Westchester may receive 11 inches while Putnam and Orange counties get 13, he said. Along the eastern Connecticut coast, 18 to 23 inches may fall. Eastern Long Island may get a foot.

As the storm intensifies it is expected to produce bands of snow that will make travel dangerous and difficult, Morrin said. The snow may accumulate at 3 inches per hour.

“By dark, conditions will steadily deteriorate tomorrow,” Morrin said.

Snow plows can’t keep up with accumulations of more than an inch an hour, Carolan said. All that cities and towns can do then is try to keep major roadways open.

Mass Pike

Dunham said roads that run from west to east, such as the Massachusetts Turnpike, also known as Interstate 90, will be very hard to keep open because the wind will be blowing the snow across the pavement.

Hints of the storm’s strength are apparent in the two major components that will come together and produce it, Carolan said. The southern segment is creating thunderstorms across the U.S. Gulf Coast and the other portion is causing intense weather in the Midwest.

“That is usually indicative of the kind of energy you need to come up the coast,” Carolan said. “Once that hits the Atlantic, you have enough energy to produce what we call a bomb.”

The last major storm to hit the region was Hurricane Sandy, which struck Oct. 29, flooding New York City’s subway system and leaving 8.5 million residents in 21 states without power.

From 1992 to 2011, winter storms caused $28.2 billion in damage, making them the third-worst type of natural disaster, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York. Hurricanes and tornadoes are the top two.

Snow has been relatively rare in the Northeast this season. Since Oct. 1, 7.4 inches have fallen in New York’s Central Park, 6.4 inches below normal.

In Boston, 9.6 inches have fallen since Dec. 1, 14.3 inches below normal. The blizzard 35 years ago raged from Feb. 5 to Feb. 7, 1978.