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Blizzard stops East Coast in its tracks

The two-day snowstorm paralyzes airports, roads and even rail lines, stranding hundreds of thousands. In New York, passengers on one subway are stuck overnight. Six states declare emergencies.

December 28, 2010|By Nathaniel Popper and Bob Drogin, Los Angeles Times
  • Snow is shoveled in Times Square after the blizzard. New York got nearly two feet of snow.
Snow is shoveled in Times Square after the blizzard. New York got nearly… (Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from New York and Silver Spring, Md. — Much of the East Coast struggled Monday to dig out from a ferocious two-day blizzard that buried airports, froze trains and subways, downed power lines and stranded hundreds of thousands of travelers and commuters during one of the year's busiest travel periods.

Howling winds and driving snow in areas from North Carolina to Maine forced the cancellation of more than 5,000 flights, crippling air travel across the nation. Officials said they might not unravel the colossal mess until Friday, the start of another holiday weekend.

The fierce storm left hundreds of cities and towns, highways and bridges all but paralyzed under a shroud of icy white. Emergency crews rescued hundreds of motorists from snow-draped roads, and hundreds of passengers in New York City endured a long, cold night on a snowbound subway train.

With heavy drifts blocking the tracks, Amtrak suspended rail services from New York to Maine, although limited service was restored Monday afternoon. Service also was canceled on New York's Long Island Rail Road and on other regional commuter lines. Greyhound and other bus companies canceled many routes.

Six states — Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia — declared states of emergency to clear snow-clogged roads, restore electric power and regain some sense of normalcy as the nor'easter roared out to sea and into the record books. Clear skies and warmer weather are predicted for the next few days.

The blizzard blanketed New York City beneath nearly 2 feet of snow, and gusting winds clocked at nearly 60 mph brought much of the city that never sleeps to a shuddering halt.

Side streets and some major avenues in Manhattan and outer boroughs were still impassable at midday Monday, stunning New Yorkers long used to a fast-moving army of snowplows.

Abandoned cars, including taxis and even a few police cars, blocked parts of the Upper West Side. In Brooklyn, cross-country skiers happily glided down the middle of a major thoroughfare as children played in the deep snow.

The region's three major airports — John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International — were closed all day, but limited service had resumed at JFK and LaGuardia by nightfall. Thousands of tired, hungry and frustrated passengers camped out on benches and floors, crowding overused restrooms and lining up at snack shops.

Ambulances, fire trucks and other emergency services struggled to keep going as the storm raged. At one point, officials said, the city's five boroughs had a backlog of 1,300 pleas for help.

Even the New York subways, famed workhorses of the city's transportation system, took a shellacking. Most subway lines suffered severe delays, and the No. 7 line that links Manhattan to working-class Queens was still silent at mid-afternoon.

Several hundred people were trapped when a subway train on the A line, which goes to JFK airport, stalled just before 1 a.m. after leaving the above-ground Aqueduct station. With snow blocking the rail that provides power to the train, the heating failed. It was nearly 8 a.m. by the time a diesel-powered locomotive was able to reach the train and tow it to safety.

"It sat there for seven hours as cold, hungry, tired passengers watched the blizzard rage outside and, eventually, the sun rise over Queens," one passenger wrote in the Daily News after the rescue.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city's subways, buses and trains, urged New Yorkers to stay indoors.

"Due to the ongoing conditions caused by the blizzard, including high winds, major snowdrifts and some streets that are still difficult for buses to navigate, the MTA is urging its customers to stay home if at all possible," the authority said Monday.

Bleary-eyed travelers camped out in every corner of New York's main train depot, Pennsylvania Station. Screens warned that "high winds and drifting snow are making the effort to clear tracks and switches very challenging."

The news did not reassure Annabelle Estrada. She and her two daughters flew to New York from Arizona to celebrate Christmas. They learned Sunday night that their flight to Phoenix had been canceled, and they couldn't rebook until Saturday. So they came to Penn Station hoping to find a train.

Estrada and her daughters slept Sunday night on the station floor, using their bags as pillows. At 4 p.m. Monday, they still didn't know when they would be able to leave.

"We've gotten bumped after bumped after bumped," Estrada said. "Three girls alone in the city. It's very scary."

She added: "I just want to get out of here. It's just crazy that the whole city was paralyzed."

Maria Crespo had come from Long Island with her brother and her two sons on Sunday night for a wrestling event at Madison Square Garden. When they went to board their train home after the event, however, they learned that everything had been canceled.

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