Making up for a remarkably mild winter, the first major snowstorm of the season charged up the East Coast on Saturday, a blizzard propelled by tropical-storm-force winds that brought much of the Northeast to a standstill and left more than two feet of snow in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio called it “very likely one of the worst snowstorms in our history.”
Officials imposed a travel ban in and around the city to keep drivers off streets. The mayor said Saturday night that the ban would be lifted at 7 a.m. on Sunday. Mr. de Blasio, who urged businesses to close, said that drivers who were caught during the ban would be “subject to arrest.”
Four Hudson River crossings — the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and the George Washington and Tappan Zee Bridges — were shut down. So were suburban commuter railroads in New York, as were the city’s public bus service and elevated subway lines, which followed the lead of mass transit systems in Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Saturday that service to aboveground subways and to Long Island Rail Road and Metro North Railroad could be restored on Sunday, weather permitting, and that a decision would be made at 6 a.m. Travelers hoping to fly into or out of New York City’s two airports, La Guardia and Kennedy Airports, would not be so lucky. The governor said “the vast majority” of flights would be canceled on Sunday.
Interactive Map | How Much Snow Has Fallen Reported accumulations of snow across the region, updated every hour.
From Tennessee to North Carolina and north along the Interstate 95 spine, those who persisted found the going slow and treacherous. In some places, long-haul trucks lined up behind snowplows. In others, cars mistook entrance ramps for exits. Officials throughout the Mid-Atlantic region warned that it could be days before residents finished digging out.
The snowstorm came close to being the biggest in New York City since 1869. The National Weather Service said 26.8 inches of snow had fallen in Central Park by midnight on Saturday, a mere one-tenth of an inch below the record set when 26.9 inches of snow piled up in February 2006.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency and implored residents to stay home. Governors in at least nine other states did the same as road crews from Nashville to New York did battle with what the National Weather Service called a “potentially crippling winter storm.”
“It’s clearly significant,” said Faye Barthold, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s New York area office. “You don’t typically get three-inch-an-hour snowfall rates, but this system is so dynamic and has all that energy.”
Interactive Feature | Live Updates: Winter Storm More than 50 million people along parts of the East Coast could be affected.
The storm — blustery in some places, blinding in others — was a swirling, sprawling mass with a reach of nearly 1,000 miles. It flooded low-lying beaches and brought down trees and power lines, leaving thousands without electricity. The storm also glazed roads and varnished trees as it walloped the Mid-Atlantic region with destructive force.
The ocean poured into shore towns in southern New Jersey: In Sea Isle City, floodwaters laden with chunks of ice surged down the streets, and in Wildwood the frigid, brackish water submerged cars halfway up to their windows. In Belmar, the wind drove a sailboat out of its marina and tangled its mast in overhead wires, knocking out power.
At least 18 people died in the storm, including a Good Samaritan who was shot and killed on the side of a North Carolina highway when he stopped to help a stranded motorist who became belligerent, according to a report in The Charlotte Observer.
But most of the storm’s victims died while attempting to drive on icy highways or shovel snow in the punishing winds. Three of those who died while shoveling were New Yorkers — men aged 67, 78 and 80 — in Queens and Staten Island, the authorities said. Two more were on Long Island, a 61-year-old man in West Hempstead and a 94-year-old man in Smithtown whose body was found next to a snow blower, the authorities said. A sixth shoveling death occurred in Maryland, where a 60-year-old man died of a heart attack on Saturday morning while removing snow outside his home, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department said.
The storm slammed Washington on Friday and continued through the night amid reports of “thunder snow” — snow accompanied by thunder and lightning. As television newscasters predicted a “100 percent chance of snowball fights,” Mayor Muriel Bowser repeated a solemn plea that echoed Mr. de Blasio’s: Stay indoors, she said, warning that the storm was not over yet. With another six to 10 inches expected, streets needed to be clear for emergency vehicles, she said. But the mayor warned it was uncertain how long it would take the city to recover and services, including schools and public transit, to resume.
The storm prevented the scheduled return of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who had been in Istanbul for meetings with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and other officials. The vice president had planned to fly home to Washington on Saturday, but White House officials said that Air Force Two would be rerouted to Miami instead and that Mr. Biden would go on to Washington once the weather cleared. The storm also caused Gov. Chris Christie to go back to New Jersey, far from Republican voters in New Hampshire, where he had taken his presidential campaign. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, on his way home from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was also diverted, in his case to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., where he checked in to a hotel.
New York awoke to a wall of white, but by arriving on a Saturday, the storm gave the city a break. There was no rush-hour commute to contend with, and officials did not have to wrestle with whether to close schools. For many, it was a day for sledding, snowboarding and snowshoeing — or for binge-viewing whatever was on the DVR or on Netflix. The music of chains clanking on snowplows and buses provided a muffled accompaniment, the snow quieting the noise against the pavement. Most of the buses — when they were still operating — were empty, and pedestrians, realizing they had the streets to themselves, stepped off sidewalks and walked triumphantly down usually busy avenues.
There were other sounds — the whine of snow blowers clearing narrow sidewalk passes and the achy groan of shovelers who did it the hard way, only to ask themselves why.
“It’s not worth it,” said Mike Diakakis, the foreman at an apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “It’s coming down as fast as we clear it away.”
The snow fell as much as three inches an hour, the National Weather Service said. But that did not stop those who had destinations — and perhaps hopes of a sled run or a snowball fight — in mind.
“It’s fun,” said Beth Kastner, on the way to a romp in Central Park with her dog, a 5-year-old Labrador mix named Nala. “You can’t sit in an apartment all day with a large dog. That’s kind of a nightmare. She’ll be O.K., and I’ll be happier.”
Graphic | Status of Airports, Trains and Other Services in the New York Area What is open and closed as the New York region copes with its first big snowstorm of 2016.
Saturday had begun with subways and buses running in New York, but Mr. Cuomo said buses were “having significant issues” and that some commuter trains faced equipment problems.
Mr. Cuomo called in to New York 1, a local television station, to praise New York City officials on Saturday, saying they did a “fantastic job.”
“The Department of Sanitation, the N.Y.P.D., Mayor de Blasio, they all handled the situation extraordinarily well,” he said.
Even before Mr. Cuomo announced that bus service was being halted, some passengers reported long waits in the cold, and as the noon cutoff approached, they worried that they would be stranded. Oscar Garcia, who lives in East Elmhurst, Queens, stood in the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue station, waiting and watching. He did not like what he saw: As his bus pulled in, the driver changed the sign to “Not in Service.”
That only added to Mr. Garcia’s frustration. He had been on his way to his job at an Italian restaurant in Rego Park when his boss called to say the restaurant would be closed for the day.
The storm stranded airline passengers up and down the East Coast, with 4,993 flights canceled on Saturday and 2,169 canceled for Sunday, according to Flightaware.com, a website that tracks such things. At La Guardia Airport, there were no lines at security checkpoints and no baggage carousels rumbling: With virtually no flights coming in, there was no baggage to unload and there were no passengers to claim it.
Those forced to wait at the airport killed time. Mykhaylo Komar, an artist from Ukraine, fretted. He and his wife were scheduled to fly to Miami for a six-day cruise to Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.
“Snow,” Mr. Komar said, shaking his head. “Very big problem.”
As of 7 p.m., 27.7 inches of snow had fallen at Kennedy Airport, according to the National Weather Service. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates La Guardia as well as John F. Kennedy and Newark Liberty International Airports, did not say when flights would resume. The agency told passengers to check with their airlines. The agency that manages Reagan National and Dulles International Airports in Washington said the runways would remain closed and air travel was unlikely to resume on Sunday.
The mail did not go through in Manhattan on Saturday — the United States Postal Service suspended delivery, a spokeswoman said, and directed its letter carriers to return to their post offices at noon. And as the day went on, the list of cancellations grew longer. Broadway shows scheduled for Saturday were canceled, as was a hockey game in Brooklyn between the Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers. The Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera canceled performances, as did the New York Philharmonic. Bruce Springsteen said on Twitter that his Sunday concert at Madison Square Garden would be postponed.
Some people took the warnings seriously and stayed indoors. Some did not. Ron Hickey, the manager of a Lowe’s home-improvement store on the Upper West Side, said there were two kinds of customers on Saturday: “the overpreparers and the people coming last second, saying, ‘Oh, no!’ ” Those in the first category, he said, were buying the usual stuff people buy on a Saturday — doors, light bulbs, plungers. The others were buying what those in the first group had bought when they heard the storm warnings on Friday — shovels, salt and batteries.
Chris Rudney, the general manager of Beacon Wines and Spirits, on Broadway at 74th Street, had an explanation for sparsely filled stores, his own included. Based on the blockbuster sales at his store on Friday, it seemed, people were home, having a drink.
“I guess,” he said, “staying inside is worthy of celebration.”
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