Monstrous snowstorm turns fatal, buries roadways throughout Northeast

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer Published Dec. 16, 2020 6:29 PM MST | Updated Dec. 17, 2020 9:01 AM MST

All of the necessary ingredients to produce a monster nor’easter came together in the Northeast this week, which triggered widespread disruptions, state of emergency declarations and a countless number of wrecks. Millions of people who were in the path of the snowstorm — in big East Coast cities like New York and Philadelphia — prepared then hunkered down in anticipation of what many meteorologists warned was going to be one of the biggest in several years.

The National Weather Service issued winter storm watches and warnings in parts of 13 states spanning from the mountains of North Carolina to the coast of Maine ahead of the storm. Heavy snow continues to spread northeastward into New England while parts of the interior mid-Atlantic see snow continue to pile up.

Precipitation started out as snow in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., at the onset of the storm. The nation’s capital picked up about an inch of snow prior to a switch to rain during the afternoon on Wednesday, washing away all of what had accumulated. Snowfall across the city of Baltimore ranged from 1-2 inches before a change to rain occurred.

AccuWeather Enhanced RealVue Satellite on Wednesday afternoon showing the snowstorm spreading across the Northeast. (AccuWeather)

In New York City, 6.5 inches of snow and sleet had piled up in Central Park as of midnight Thursday, easily surpassing the city’s snowfall total from the entire 2019-20 winter season of 4.8 inches.

The storm also proved fatal as travel tragedies and cleanup disasters unfolded. In Pennsylvania, John A. Vichie, a 63-year-old man, was struck and killed by a snowplow on Wednesday night amid heavy snowfall, according to local TV station WTAE. Trib Live reported that Vichie was walking with a snowblower just after dark when he was struck by the plow, which was operated by a municipal worker. Vichie was pronounced dead at the scene and identified later by the medical examiner’s office. Pittsburgh picked up more than 9 inches of snow from the storm and snow was falling lightly there on Thursday morning.

Transportation crews were up early on Wednesday morning trying to stay ahead of the storm’s snow and ice. Roads from Virginia to Illinois were facing snowy to icy road conditions by Wednesday morning, prompting the Virginia Department of Transportation to tweet a slew of warnings as crews faced the storm they had been preparing for since at least the beginning of the week. 

The Ohio Department of Transportation announced that as of 8:15 a.m. EST Wednesday, nearly 600 crews were out treating and plowing roadways across the state — 300 more than had been mobilized an hour previously.

Farther to the south, James Singleton, a meteorologist at the Redwood, Virginia-based station Cable 12 TV, reported that the state police were already warning of icy bridges on Interstate 81and that a VDOT radio had described one roadway as a “solid sheet of ice.” Even with the fleet of plow trucks and brine preparations, the snow and ice were too much to handle in some locations.

“The heaviest snowfall totals thus far have been across central and northern Pennsylvania, the southern tier of New York state and into southern Vermont,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Renee Duff said early Thursday morning.

On Wednesday night, snowfall totals surpassed one foot in portions of central and northern Pennsylvania. One band of intense snow has created a phenomenon known as thundersnow, when lightning and thunder are seen during intense bursts of snow.

The thundersnow was detected near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where around 8 inches of snow has fallen. In State College, Pennsylvania, the National Weather Service office measured 12.5 inches as of 11 p.m. EST Wednesday. To put this in perspective, the entire 2019-20 winter season only had 13.2 inches at this site.

By early Thursday morning, a heavy band of snow had set up across the southern tier of New York state, with over 2-3 feet of snow and 5-inch per hour snowfall rates reported around the Binghamton area.

Car accidents started ramping up across Pennsylvania as snow accumulated on roads from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.

AccuWeather National News Reporter Bill Wadell is in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for the duration of the storm and saw the aftermath of a crash first-hand.

A driver lost control on a snow-covered road in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and crashed into a front porch,” Wadell said.

Fortunately, no one was injured and officials were on the scene to help direct traffic around the incident. Many major highways across the Commonwealth have implemented a ban on most commercial vehicles and have reduced the speed limit to 45 mph, including much of interstates 80, 81 and 99.

Later in the day on Interstate 80 in central Pennsylvania, a major pileup involving over 30 vehicles occurred amid snowy conditions, shutting down the westbound lane for hours. The Pennsylvania State Police confirmed that at least two fatalities occurred due to the crash.

By the end of the day on Wednesday, 9.3 inches of snow had fallen in Pittsburgh, making Dec. 16 the fifth snowiest December day on record in the city. Earlier in the day, emergency crews responded to an accident in Collier Township, located southwest of the city, when another vehicle lost control and slid right toward the people on the scene. Fortunately, the three people on the road were uninjured.

At least six people were transported to area hospitals after being injured in a multi-vehicle crash on Wednesday evening. Authorities said four of the injuries were said to be serious but not life-threatening, while two of the injuries were minor. The major pileup that shut down part of the Henry Hudson Parkway. The number of vehicles involved is unclear, but police say there were approximately 19 cars involved. According to ABC 7 New York, sources say that 9 of the 19 vehicles had to be towed off the bridge.

Besides the slippery roads causing delays and wrecks across the Northeast, hundreds of flights were canceled and rail service was suspended.

Airlines canceled more than 1,200 flights ahead of the winter storm, USA Today reports. At least 700 U.S. flights were canceled on Wednesday and 500 were canceled on Thursday.

Amtrak announced on Tuesday it would operate on a modified schedule in parts of the Northeast and cancel some services from Wednesday to Friday. The Northeast Regional train was set to run only between Newport News and Washington on Wednesday, the company said, and all Acela services for Thursday have been canceled. New Jersey Transit said it would suspend bus service in New York and northern New Jersey and rail service systemwide.

Farther south, ice accumulated across parts of North Carolina and West Virginia, with the highest reported total so far coming from Saluda, North Carolina, located in the southwestern part of the state.

Power outages started to emerge first in Virginia with more than 10,000 outages on Wednesday at 3 p.m. EST. By Wednesday night, power outages had risen to over 50,000 customers in Virginia, according to

Allentown, Pennsylvania, resident Cynthia Norman told AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell she was prepared for potential power outages as she loaded up her car at the bustling super market. 

“I got my batteries, I got my flash lights and I have little power packs already charged so I can keep my cell phone and iPad going,” Norman said.

Snowfall and ice were the culprits behind the high power outage numbers during the day on Wednesday. Virginia started to accumulate snow rather quickly once the storm picked up. Albin, Virginia, recorded 6 inches of snow by Wednesday afternoon while Jerome, Virginia, and Kline Gap, West Virginia, followed closely behind with 6.5 inches of snow. 

By the time evening rolled around, Albin, Virginia, accumulated another inch of snow which pushed its total to 7 inches so far.

In New Jersey, where more than 1 foot of snow was forecast in northwest portions of the state, Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency ahead of the winter storm which started at 2 p.m. on Wednesday. 

The New Jersey Department of Transportation issued a commercial vehicle restriction on multiple interstate highways beginning at 1 p.m. The restriction applies to “empty straight CDL-weighted trucks, any passenger vehicles towing trailers, motorcycles and recreational vehicles,” the agency said. New Jersey will receive a wide range of impacts from the powerful storm. Parts of southern New Jersey will be lashed by rain and wind, while northern parts of the state deal with blizzard conditions.

A snow emergency was declared in Boston and a parking ban went into effect in the city starting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, according to Mayor Marty Walsh. Officials warned that any vehicles on city streets that serve as snow emergency routes would be towed. City officials also canceled in-person learning for city schools on Thursday and closed city-sponsored mobile COVID-19 testing sites.

“Boston hasn’t seen a sizable snowstorm since March of 2019 — over 21 months ago. I am urging everyone to be ready and prepared,” Walsh said in a statement.

AccuWeather meteorologists predicted anywhere from 10-15 inches of snow for the city through Thursday afternoon. Boston was one of the few Northeast cities that had a decent helping of snow last winter, with a total of 15.2 inches. That total is still well short of what the city averages each winter, which is around 42.9 inches.

A few businesses near Boston decided to close during the storm, The New York Times reported. Matt Otten, the manager at Zaftigs Delicatessen, a Brookline restaurant known for its Jewish comfort food, said he typically would not close because of bad weather. However, this time he was worried.

We are concerned for our workers’ safety since the roads are going to be very treacherous,” Otten told the New York Times. 

Travel could be very difficult to impossible,” the NWS office in Albany, New York, said. “Snowfall rates [will approach] 2 inches per hour at times Wednesday night.” Snow this heavy can overwhelm road crews working to keep highways clear of snow. “If you must travel, keep an extra flashlight, food, and water in your vehicle in case of an emergency,” the NWS added.

Indoor dining has been suspended across New York City for at least two weeks due to COVID-19 restrictions, forcing restaurants to rely on outdoor seating and takeout. However, the snowstorm across the Northeast now poses another hurdle for restaurants to overcome. A snow alert was issued on Monday that will put a temporary end to outdoor dining in the city.

The city estimates that the snow alert will be over by Thursday evening, allowing restaurants to reopen, but this may change based on roadway conditions. Enzo’s Restaurant on Arthur Avenue started preparing for the storm’s impacts on Monday “by being pro-active and calling offices and hospitals, police departments, fire stations, and seeing if they were willing to get orders to go for lunchtime, dinnertime,” manager Robert Aste told ABC7 Eyewitness News.

One of the big reasons forecasters were so confident that there would be a major snowstorm this week was the presence of Arctic air that has kept temperatures below freezing in many areas.

With Christmas just 10 days away, there is the chance that some snow from the nor’easter could stick around into the holidays. One factor that will play a role in this is frigid air that will chill the Northeast in the storm’s wake.

“On the heels of the major winter storm that will bury much of the mid-Atlantic and portions of the Northeast with over a foot of snow, some exceptionally cold air for mid-December will linger later on Thursday, Thursday night and Friday,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Carl Babinski. This likely won’t be record-setting cold, but temperatures will average below normal for several days following the nor’easter.

Additionally, this part of December features some of the shortest days of the entire year, so the limited sunlight will translate to less snowmelt when compared to the slightly longer days during the latter part of winter. The shorter days combined with the reinforcing shot of cold air could be enough to put a smile on the face of those across the region’s interior who are dreaming of a white Christmas.

If any locales get around a foot or more of snow, it could be enough to last until Christmas,” AccuWeather Long-Range Meteorologist Tyler Roys said.  (Click to Source)

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