A blizzard with hurricane-force winds brought much of the East Coast to a standstill Saturday, dumping as much as 3 feet of snow, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and shutting down the nation’s capital and its largest city.
After days of weather warnings, most of the 80 million people in the storm’s path heeded requests to stay home and off the roads, which were largely deserted. Yet at least 17 deaths were blamed on the weather — most from traffic accidents, but several people also died while shoveling snow.
And more snow was to come, with dangerous conditions expected to persist until early Sunday, forecasters warned.
“This is going to be one of those generational events, where your parents talk about how bad it was,” Ryan Maue, a meteorologist for WeatherBell Analytics, said from Tallahassee, Florida, which also saw some flakes.
The system was mammoth, dropping snow from the Gulf Coast to New England. By afternoon, areas near Washington had surpassed 30 inches. The heaviest unofficial report was in a rural area of West Virginia, not far from Harper’s Ferry, with 40 inches.
Besides snow and wind, the National Weather Service predicted up to half an inch of ice for the Carolinas and potentially serious coastal flooding for the mid-Atlantic region.
As the storm picked up, forecasters increased their snow predictions for New York and points north. The new estimates were for heavy snow nearly all the way to Boston, forecaster Patrick Burke said from the weather service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
“This is kind of a Top 10 snowstorm,” said weather service winter storm expert Paul Kocin, who co-wrote a two-volume textbook on blizzards.
And for New York and Washington this looks like Top 5, he said: “It’s a big one.”
By early evening, the core of the system was rolling away from Washington toward New York, where normally bustling streets around Rockefeller Center, Penn Station and other landmarks were mostly empty. Those who did venture out walked down the middle of snow-covered streets to avoid even deeper drifts on the sidewalks.
With Broadway shows dark, thin crowds shuffled through a different kind of Great White Way in Times Square.
As recently as Friday night, New York officials had expected the storm to top out at 18 inches. But that prediction jumped to 25 inches Saturday morning and to 28 by evening. More than 19 inches had fallen on Central Park by late afternoon.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, imposed a travel ban in the city, ordering all nonemergency vehicles off the roads. Commuter rails and above-ground segments of the nation’s biggest subway system shut down too, along with buses.
Without a bus, home health aide Elijah Scarboro couldn’t get to his next client, an 89-year-old man with Alzheimer’s.
“I’m really concerned,” he said. “But I think he’ll be fine. He’s with his wife. I wish I could get there, but I can’t.”
Cab driver Mian Ayyub said he tried to pick up fares Saturday morning but gave up after getting stuck four times in two hours. Police and passers-by helped free him.
“I’ve been driving a cab 28 years, but this looks like the worst,” he said.
He parked and went home.
The scenario was much the opposite of what unfolded a year ago, when a storm carrying predictions for 18 to 24 inches of snow prompted officials to enforce a complete shutdown of the subway system — the first ever in a snowstorm — but less than a foot ultimately fell in the city. The decision to close the subways drew criticism from some business owners and transit advocacy groups, but the mayor and governor said the forecast had left them no choice.
In Washington, monuments that would typically be busy with tourists stood vacant. In the morning, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial had not been cleared off and looked almost like a ski slope. At the Korean War Veterans Memorial, statues of soldiers were coated with snow, as was the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Visibility was sharply reduced. On an average day, visitors can see from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument and the Capitol. But on Saturday, the Washington Monument was not even visible from the memorial to the 16th president.
All mass transit in the capital was to be shut down through Sunday.
To the west, a miles-long backup of vehicles on the Pennsylvania Turnpike included a church group from Indiana.
Father Shaun Whittington said he and his 96 parishioners, mostly teenagers, were on their way home Friday evening from the March for Life in Washington when the turnpike turned into a snowy parking lot.
They had enough gas to keep the buses running and enough DVDs to keep the kids entertained until nearly noon Saturday, when plows finally arrived, Whittington said.
“We’re on a pilgrimage,” he said. “There’s going to be suffering with that.”
Hundreds of drivers were also stranded overnight in Kentucky on a long stretch of Interstate 75 south of Lexington because of a string of crashes and blowing snow. Crews passed out snacks, fuel and water and tried to move cars one by one.
The snow alone would have been enough to bring the East Coast to a halt. But it was whipped into a maelstrom by winds that reached 75 mph at Dewey Beach, Delaware, and Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, the weather service said.
From Virginia to New York, sustained winds topped 30 mph and gusted to around 50 mph. The wind was so strong that scientists reported trouble measuring the snow because it sometimes seemed to blow sideways.
And if that weren’t enough, the storm also had bursts of thunder and lightning. Forecasters saw lightning out the window of the Weather Prediction Center, where meteorologists were camped out.
The ice and snow canceled more than 4,400 flights on Saturday, bringing the weekend total to 6,300. Airlines hoped to be back in business by Sunday afternoon.
Stranded travelers included Defense Secretary Ash Carter, whose high-tech aircraft, known as the Doomsday Plane, couldn’t land at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland after returning from Europe. Carter was rerouted to Tampa, Florida, where he planned to wait for better weather.
In its wake, the storm also knocked out electricity. New Jersey utilities reported that nearly 50,000 customers were without power.