Massive winter storm taking toll in power outages, canceled flights — and lives

Posted at 6:22 PM, Feb 13, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-13 20:22:49-05
A car catches fire in Raleigh, North Carolina as drivers battle heavy snow on Wednesday, February 12, 2014. Image courtesy Lindsay Webb via CNN.

A car catches fire in Raleigh, North Carolina as drivers battle heavy snow on Wednesday, February 12, 2014. Image courtesy Lindsay Webb via CNN.

By Greg Botelho


(CNN) — Enough already. Really.

As if the East Coast hadn’t gotten the point by now, Mother Nature drove it home yet again — that this is winter, hear it roar.

Roar it did Thursday, as a massive storm system that just finished pummeling much of the Southeast moved northward. Some of what fell from the sky was rain, some was sleet, some was snow.

Whatever it was, it made for a mess.

Fast-falling snow caused tractor-trailers to jackknife and prompted authorities in New York to ban commercial traffic on Interstate 84 — a major east-west highway running through the state — the state transportation department tweeted.

About 9-and-a-half inches of snow had fallen as of 3:30 p.m. in Newark, New Jersey; and Bridgeport, Connecticut; with nearly 8 inches piling up at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

What came down, came in bunches: In New York’s Central Park, for instance, 3 inches fell in a span of just two hours during the morning. And a band of heavy snow dropped 3 to 6 inches in parts of Connecticut, at one point.

It all adds up. In Massachusetts’ Berkshires, for instance, state officials are predicting 14 to 24 inches of snow before the storm runs its course.

For some, the issue isn’t just the fact that there’s snow: This is winter, after all, in the Northeast. But it’s more that people there haven’t gotten much of a reprieve.

That’s why New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, opening up his press conference Thursday, said: “Welcome to winter storm six of the last six weeks.”

And as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pointed out before the worst of the storm hit: “This has just been a brutal winter where it never really has gotten warmer. And so the natural melting away of snow and ice is not happening.”

Especially over its full course, this storm has proven to be nothing to mess with.

At least 16 deaths have been blamed on the storm. Three of them were in Howard County, Maryland, where three men — ages 45, 55 and 57 — suffered suspected cardiac arrest “while in the act of shoveling snow,” said county spokesman Mark Miller, who noted that what fell there was “a heavy wet snow.”

There were also three deaths apiece in Texas and North Carolina, including one in a rural part of the latter due to a falling tree limb. And in the New York buro of Brooklyn, a 36-year-old pregnant woman died after being struck by a small tractor clearing snow. Her nearly full-term baby was delivered by cesarean section at a hospital and was in critical condition.

Amid such tragedy, even as people hunker down or cope without electricity, life has gone on, too.

Augusta Kalsky documented the snowy, icy, windy morass Thursday for CNN iReport, calling this system “one of the more aggressive Nor’easters” she’s seen since returning to Manhattan four years ago.

At the same time, she added, “The usual drivers and pedestrians (are) attempting to go about their business as usual.”

Power outages; over 6,400 flights canceled

There was nothing usual about Thursday for Aretha Williams. The Fairburn, Georgia, woman’s power went out at 6 a.m. Wednesday — her birthday, of all days. And 34 hours later, it was still out.

Over that time, she and her teenage daughter took turns going back and forth to their car to get warmed up by the engine and heater, and charge their phones. When they tried to contact the local utility, Williams says, the calls went straight to voice mail — leaving her with no idea when her lights and heat would come back on.

“We are just frustrated,” Williams said late Thursday afternoon, hours after first alerting CNN iReport to her ordeal.

Venturing out on the still slippery roads, Williams and her daughter did manage to buy lunch but couldn’t find any available firewood. That’s one reason why she’s strongly considering trying to find somewhere warm to spend the night.

As she said, “It’s too cold. I can’t go through this another night with my daughter.”

Unfortunately, Williams has plenty of company in being in the dark.

Some 625,000 customers — more than half of whom were in North and South Carolina — were without power up and down the East Coast as of 6:45 p.m. One positive was that number was down about 75,000 from a few hours earlier, indicating utilities were making progress.

Many others have other kinds of headaches, like would-be air travelers.

FlightAware, an air travel tracking website, reported around 7 p.m. Thursday that nearly 6,500 flights originating in or destined for the United States had been canceled.

Charlotte’s airport in North Carolina has been the most impacted. Still, there are few along the East Coast — from Atlanta to Washington to Philadelphia to Boston — that haven’t had their schedules turned upside down, yet again, by this winter storm.

And rail travel hasn’t been immune. Amtrak has suspended some service in the Northeast, South and Mid-Atlantic regions again for Thursday.

Southern contrasts

Atlanta appeared to have learned its lesson from a paralyzing snowstorm two weeks ago, but drivers in the Carolinas got their own taste of nightmare commutes Wednesday as the storm system raced up the East Coast. The storm appeared to take people by surprise despite days of warnings.

“It’s really, really bad, and it got so bad so quickly that people just weren’t ready. Even though we were warned, it just happened more quickly than you would think possible,” said Christina Martinson, who was stuck in snowbound traffic with her husband and son for hours in Durham, North Carolina.

“We saw so many people … cars piled up and left on the side of the road, and wrecks.”

Durham Mayor William Bell said his city had expected the snow, but it came down much more quickly than anyone imagined.

Power outages were few, he told CNN’s “New Day,” but highways were gridlocked and motorists stranded.

“Just a bad day,” Bell said.

Along Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh, dozens of vehicles were sprawled along the roadway when suddenly a car burst into flames.

“This car started spinning out and it started to smoke under the hood and it lit up very quickly,” Lindsay Webb said. “And within minutes that whole car was in flames.”

The North Carolina Department of Transportation urged people not to abandon their vehicles. Department spokesman Mike Charbonneau said the National Guard was on the streets, but no rescues were carried out overnight.

He said that to his knowledge, no drivers spent the night in their cars on the highway.

Abandoned cars were being towed so salt trucks and plows could continue to work, he said.

CNN’s Mariano Castillo, Christina Zdanowicz, Henry Hanks, Ed Payne, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Sean Morris, Erin McPike, Sherri Pugh, Meridith Edwards, Chelsea J. Carter, Chandler Friedman and Gary Tuchman contributed to this report.

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