Winter wallop pounds northeastern US

A major winter storm barreled through the northeastern United States Saturday, threatening to dump up to two feet (61 centimeters) of snow on the last weekend of the Christmas holiday shopping season.

In the bull's eye of the storm, Baltimore and Washington were on track to break record December snowfall, with one to two feet forecast by dawn Sunday, eclipsing Washington's 12-inch (30-centimeter) record in 1932 and Baltimore's record 14.1 inches (35.8 cm).

The Washington Post noted that double-digit accumulations were already being recorded in southern Virginia. Governor Tim Kaine earlier declared a state of emergency in Virginia.

Another eight to 14 inches (20-36 cm) of snow were expected to accumulate in New York by early Sunday.

Warnings were in effect along the Atlantic Coast, from North Carolina and Tennessee to New Jersey and Connecticut, with the storm pounding major cities, including Washington, Baltimore and New York, according to the National Weather Service.

Those cities were also under a blizzard warning, which leads to white out conditions that make travel dangerous.

President Barack Obama raced back to Washington to avoid the worst of the storm, and landed at Andrews Air Force Base shortly after 1:00 am (0600 GMT).

Several snowplows cleared the runway as Obama's blue and white Air Force One jumbo jet landed. He headed home after spending less than 24 hours in Copenhagen for crunch talks with world leaders on climate change that culminated with a draft deal to limit global warming.

Tens of thousands of people were momentarily in the dark in North Carolina, with power outages also affecting Virginia, according to The Weather Channel.

The National Weather service warned that weather conditions in the capital area - hit by blowing snow coupled with cold and windy conditions - made travel "extremely treacherous."

"Do not travel. If you must travel, have a winter survival kit with you. If you get stranded, stay with your vehicle," it warned.

Snow was forecast to fall through Saturday afternoon before tapering off.

"You had to be very cautious," Maryland resident Mario Bruno told WJLA ABC7 News. "Windshield wipers are a big issue... You just need to be real careful."

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty declared a snow emergency.

"All indications are this will be a major storm - perhaps the biggest we've seen in several years," he said in a statement. "And we are going to throw everything we have at it to keep the District open for business on this busy pre-holiday weekend."

The capital's bus system was experiencing major delays due to the heavy snow that blanketed roads, and was limited to snow emergency routes, while the Metrorail system planned to operate trains every 10 to 12 minutes.

The winter wallop could also take a bite out of retail sales on "Super Saturday," a major shopping day before Christmas.

In Washington and New York City, municipal authorities scrambled to obtain additional snow-removing equipment and salt to cope with the weekend snowstorm.

Flight cancellations and delays could knock out some of travelers' holiday cheer, with air travel likely to grind to a halt Saturday and early Sunday. Most airports in the northeast advised passengers to check their flight times well ahead of schedule.

Even with most flights in and out of the Washington area canceled for Saturday, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority said its crews worked throughout the night to clear runways at Washington Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport.

Virgin America announced it had cancelled all flights to and from Dulles.

Economy carrier Jet Blue said it would waive changing fees and fare differences to allow customers to rebook their flights if they had plans to travel through Baltimore Washington International (BWI), Dulles, John F Kennedy International and other mid-Atlantic and New York area airports.

United Airlines, AirTran Airways and Delta Air Lines had similar arrangements.

Southwest Airlines said it had cancelled most of its flights to and from BWI until 2:00 pm (1900 GMT) and to and from Dulles until 4:00 pm (2100 GMT).

The storm system originated over the Gulf of Mexico, unleashing flash floods in much of southeastern United States. The rain turned to snow as the storm tracked northeastward into sub-freezing temperatures.

bur-oh/ach

 

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