A fast-moving winter storm barreled through the Mid-Atlantic and into the Northeast on Wednesday, with snow piling up and mixing with sleet and stiff winds to create hazardous road conditions in the affected areas.
A pileup involving dozens of cars on Interstate 80 in Clinton County, Pa., resulted in two deaths, the state police said. A spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police said a 19-year-old man had died in a car crash, one of about 200 the state police had responded to by 3 p.m.
In New York City, a multicar collision on an already salted stretch of road just south of a bridge linking Manhattan to the Bronx left a half-dozen people hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, officials said.
As the night wore on, the storm, as had been forecast, was proving to be one of the biggest in New York, Philadelphia and other East Coast cities since a crippling 2016 blizzard.
“Everything that was predicted is right on track,” David Stark, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in New York, said Wednesday evening. As of midnight, Central Park had gotten 6.5 inches of snow and sleet, the Weather Service said.
The snow had started to stick in New York City several hours earlier and was expected to come with growing intensity until around midnight, Mr. Stark said. The accumulation of snow in the city might end up on the lower end of the eight to 12 inches that had been forecast, he said.
In Philadelphia, where snow gave way to sleet in the afternoon, there were reports of five inches in Rittenhouse Square and close to six inches at Philadelphia International Airport.
The storm, a nor’easter, hit first in Maryland, Virginia and the Washington area, with a mixture of freezing rain and snow blanketing the region. Near Frederick County, Md., dozens of cars could barely inch forward on a packed highway. In Washington, about 50 miles southeast, the snow seemed to be turning to slush.
The storm was expected to stretch nearly 1,000 miles, from North Carolina to New England, according to the National Weather Service, and threatened to fell trees, knock out power and cover roadways with ice. Western Maryland and southern central Pennsylvania were forecast to bear the brunt of the storm, with as much as two feet of snow falling in those areas.
A municipal snow plow struck and killed a man in western Pennsylvania late on Wednesday afternoon, the authorities said. The episode happened just before 5 p.m. in North Versailles, Pa., about 13 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, according to local media reports, which said that the man had been operating a snow blower when the public works plow backed into him.
With forecasters predicting New York could get up to a foot of snow when a nor’easter hit on Wednesday, residents braced for what had the potential to be the most severe winter storm since a blizzard shut down the city in January 2016.
The snowfall was fierce for a time — coming down at a rate of 1 to 2 inches an hour, according to the National Weather Service — but it had begun to taper off as the clock ticked toward midnight.
By 11:30 p.m. in Upper Manhattan, the precipitation had turned to a mixture of snow, rain and sleet that was beginning to crust the drifts between parked cars. Temperatures in the mid-20s and sharp gusts of wind made walking just a short distance unpleasant.
As of midnight, Central Park had gotten 6.5 inches of snow and sleet, the Weather Service said, more than the 4.8 inches it got all of last winter.
By 11 p.m., there were few reports of weather-related havoc and no major power outages. Road conditions were hazardous, but the only major car crash reported was a multicar pileup on an already salted stretch just south of the Henry Hudson Bridge that left six people hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.
The major snowstorm that walloped the Mid-Atlantic states, creating hazardous driving conditions and producing at least a foot of snow across parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, will continue to move northward through New England on Thursday.
The area will see snow throughout the day and it will begin tampering off by the evening hours, according to the National Weather Service. The final flakes associated with the weather system will fall across eastern Maine and Cape Code late Thursday evening, the service said.
After most of southern New England experienced moderate to heavy snowfall overnight, some areas on Thursday will see two to three inches per hour. Matt Otten, the manager at Zaftigs Delicatessen, a Boston restaurant known for its Jewish comfort food, said he typically would not close because of bad weather. This time, though, he was worried. “We are concerned for our workers’ safety since the roads are going to be very treacherous,” he said.
Overnight, parts Massachusetts saw up to 10 inches of snowfall, and meteorologists predicted additional snow accumulations up to nine more inches before the storm moves out of the area.
Around Boston, overnight snow totals were in the five-inch range, and more was expected throughout the day. Colder air will also push back into the Boston area Thursday morning with temperatures falling below freezing before noon.
Meteorologists in Vermont said a band of heavy snow moved across the southern Rutland and Windsor counties overnight, creating poor visibility. Travel in southern Vermont could be hazardous in the morning hours, they said, as heavy snowfall was expected to continue at a rate of at least two inches per hour.
In New Hampshire and Maine, where the winter storm was advancing, meteorologists predicted snow through Thursday morning and into the afternoon. The heaviest snow will fall in mid morning, they said. The National Weather Service in Portland said the southern parts of the two states could receive between 12 and 18 inches of snow, with lighter accumulations toward the north.
The first major winter storm of the season made its way up the East Coast on Wednesday and into Thursday morning, and like everything in 2020, it was made more complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Hospitals in the storm’s path, already struggling with overloaded intensive care units and emergency departments from Covid-19 hospitalizations, delayed elective surgeries to keep beds available. Several major cities, including Baltimore and Hartford, Conn., temporarily shut down coronavirus testing sites in anticipation of heavy snow and wind.
The storm also threatened the timely delivery of a coronavirus vaccine, just as the first inoculations of health care workers began this week. St. Luke’s University Health Network, which operates 12 hospitals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, expected to receive its first vaccine delivery on Thursday, but a spokesman said there was a possibility it would be delayed by the storm.
While hundreds of school districts announced that they would close Wednesday and Thursday because of the storm, others found online learning honed during the pandemic to be the perfect substitute for a snow day, disappointing students who hoped for a day off.
Even the usual headaches of flight delays — hundreds of flights were canceled on Wednesday — came with new worries because of the virus. Chloe Cho, 22, was supposed to fly home from Boston to Chicago on Thursday, but the storm caused her to delay her trip an extra day.
“I am not thrilled,” she said. “I usually don’t mind waiting in airports, but now I’m scared because of Covid that I’m going to have to sit around and wait for my flight due to the storm.”
With a major winter storm bearing down on the Eastern United States, you can expect some people (and, perhaps inevitably, President Trump), to ask, “What happened to global warming?”
It’s becoming increasingly clear that climate change does have an effect on storms, though the relationship can be complex and, yes, counterintuitive. “There were these expectations that winter was basically going to disappear on us,” said Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at AER, a company that provides information to clients about weather and climate-related risk.
Although winters are becoming warmer and somewhat milder overall, extreme weather events have also been on the increase, and especially in the Northeastern United States, as Dr. Cohen pointed out in a recent paper in the journal Nature Communications. From the winter of 2008-9 until 2017-18, there were 27 major Northeast winter storms, three to four times the totals for each of the previous five decades.
One of the factors potentially feeding storms is a warmer atmosphere, which can hold more water vapor; not only can that mean more precipitation, but when the vapor forms clouds, “it releases heat into the air, which provides fuel for storms,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. Also potentially important, but less understood, she noted, is “the increased tendency for the jet stream to take big swoops north and south,” setting up weather phenomena like the dreaded polar vortex.
Does that mean this particular storm has been fueled by climate change? Jonathan E. Martin, a professor in the department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, cautioned against drawing quick conclusions.
Because of the “enormous natural variability” in storms and the weather they deliver, “I think it is a dangerous business attributing individual winter storms, or characteristics of them, to climate change,” he said. And this storm in particular, he added, is getting a lot of its moisture from water vapor evaporated off the Atlantic Ocean, which complicates the picture.
Dr. Francis agreed that any connections are complex, but added, “all storms now form in a greatly altered climate, so there’s little doubt that the same storm decades ago would not be the same.”
It’s usually a New York City nightmare: a midweek nor’easter that promised to dump a foot of snow before the morning commute, snarling traffic, shutting down airports and commuter train lines, slowing subways and forcing parents to somehow work around small children thrilled by a day off from school.
But this is 2020. The snow day began nine months ago. And in the sort of reversal that could only happen in this pandemic era, a heavy snowstorm is, to many, a most welcome change, something new to look at from the windows that New Yorkers have lived behind since March.
Of course, to essential workers and city agencies, the storm was still a storm, packing the potential for major problems. Restaurant workers, coming off the halt of indoor dining on Monday and some outdoor dining ahead of the storm on Wednesday, braced for the first stretch without any business since the spring. Taxi drivers, food vendors — everyone who makes a living in the street — stood to face a loss made greater by the months that came before.
But in other pockets of the city, to anticipate and lean into something fun — to see a colossal storm approaching and think “sled” — felt almost indulgent. Mothers and fathers planned to mute their office notifications before ducking outside with sons and daughters, finding fresh, white hills normally out of reach on a work day.
Daniel Lugo and his daughter, Frida, 6, tried two hardware stores in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace neighborhood on Wednesday, finally finding what they were after — a long blue sled — on Prospect Avenue. “Our last one,” a worker said.
“Oh, yes!” came the shouted reply — and not from Frida. “It actually feels good,” Mr. Lugo said, his glasses fogging above his mask. Normally, he’d be taking a subway to Manhattan, but now, “I commute in my socks,” he said. “I’ll take half a day, take this one out sledding — I’m actually excited.”
He’ll have to wait until school ends for the day to sled with Frida, though. In the upside-down year that is 2020, the once-a-century asterisk, it was New York’s public-school children who suffered a loss on Thursday, missing out on the chance of a day off. The city suggested this week that remote learning would quite likely make snow days a thing of the past, perhaps for good.