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Blizzard rolls up East Coast

School's out in New York City and elsewhere, flights are grounded and traffic is snow-bound. The South digs out after being hit by the intense storm.

March 03, 2009|Erika Hayasaki and Richard Fausset

NEW YORK AND ATLANTA — March arrived with a powerful snowstorm that dumped more than a foot of snow across the East Coast on Monday, grounding flights, jamming traffic and canceling school for the first time in five years in the nation's largest public school system.

In New York, 1.1 million students got a day off, joining thousands of children from South Carolina through Pennsylvania and Maine who were also told to stay home because of the treacherous weather.

As the Northeast dealt with the storm's effects -- government offices were closed in Maine -- Southerners were recuperating from the unusually intense blast of snow and ice that hit them Sunday.

Some parts of Tennessee and North Carolina received more than a foot of snow. Atlanta received 4 inches and the Georgia college town of Athens about 5 inches.

"It looked like something out of a book, out of a fairy tale," said Athens resident Antonio Callaway, 34.

But it also looked like trouble. Hundreds of thousands of homes from Virginia to Georgia lost power. Hundreds of flights were canceled at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and flights to the Northeast corridor were still being delayed Monday.

Some airlines, such as JetBlue, allowed passengers who had been scheduled to travel Sunday or Monday to or from Boston, New York, Maine, Virginia and North Carolina to rebook through Thursday for free.

Still, crowds of people who didn't check their flight status before heading to the airport, or were trying to catch connections, were left stranded at airports across the region.

Other travelers got stranded on roads.

In South Carolina on Sunday night, a stretch of Interstate 85 was blocked by downed power lines and a number of big-rig trucks that had splayed sideways on the road. The resulting traffic jam stretched for about 20 miles and left hundreds of motorists in their cars overnight on either side of the North Carolina-South Carolina border.

The stuck motorists were checked on throughout the evening by state troopers and other emergency personnel.

In Cleveland County, N.C., 32 people were taken from their cars and allowed to bunk down in emergency shelters. A few ran out of gas as they waited in the cold. But there were no reports of serious injuries.

"Some chose the option to stay with their vehicle and make a [night] of it," said Cleveland County Deputy Fire Marshal Perry Davis. "Some of them made snowmen in the middle of the interstate, and had snowball fights, and just had a jolly old time."

The interstate was cleared by Monday morning. But elsewhere in the South, problems persisted.

In Georgia, where about 150,000 homes and businesses lost power, about 25,000 customers remained without electricity Monday afternoon, said Georgia Power spokeswoman Carol Boatwright. Many of those were in northeast Georgia, which saw some of the heaviest snow.

Boatwright said crews were fixing power lines only to have snow- and ice-laden tree limbs fall and take them down again.

"We're not making as much headway as we'd have hoped," she said.

By Monday afternoon, the storm sped toward New England, creating blizzard-like conditions with winds up to 35 mph.

In a news conference in New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg urged people who stayed home from work or school to take the day to order food from nearby restaurants. In this economy, he said, "I'm sure they could use the business."

It was the biggest snowstorm in New York since February 2006. Sanitation workers began spreading salt on roads late Sunday night and continued through Monday evening.

"Today we've got 2,000 sanitation workers on duty operating 1,400 plows for around-the-clock coverage," Bloomberg said. "To plow all our streets, just think about it; it's like plowing from here to Los Angeles and back."

Among those taking the day off was David Behin of Brooklyn, who had just finished taking his 3-year-old daughter sledding at a park blanketed in sugary white hills. "It was her first time sledding, and she had a blast," he said.

Around the corner, Pedro Tejada stood in ankle-deep snow, scraping ice off of his van as flakes dropped on his face and covered his thick overcoat with wet crystals. A bitterly cold wind blew as cars crawled down roads slick with ice. The apartment manager said he didn't get a day off.

"The schools may be closed," Tejada said, "but everybody else still has to go to work. This is just part of living in New York."

--

erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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