National News

Winter Storm Pounds Northeast With Wind, Snow and Flooding

Posted January 4, 2018 7:22 p.m. EST
Updated January 4, 2018 7:36 p.m. EST

Crew members with the New Jersey Department of Transportation attach a plow to a salt truck in preparation for heavy snowfalls in Hamilton Township, N.J., Jan. 3, 2018. Florida, Georgia and South Carolina on Wednesday were feeling the frosty effects of a storm forecast to hit most of the Eastern United States, prolonging a stretch of strikingly bitter cold. (Bryan Anselm/The New York Times)

After battering the South and whipping up the mid-Atlantic coast, a blizzard propelled by hurricane-strength winds lashed the Northeast on Thursday, grounding flights, shuttering schools, flooding buildings and sending squalls of snow into the tunnels of New York City’s subway system.

In downtown Boston, a 3-foot tidal surge flooded a subway station and turned a popular tourist district into a slushy tundra. In New York, the two major airports stopped flights and cars slid off glazed roads. And in Virginia, more than 40,000 homes and businesses lost power.

The storm, dubbed a “bomb cyclone” by some meteorologists for how quickly the barometric pressure fell, created winds that topped 75 mph in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and 65 mph on Long Island, New York, tearing the roof off a gas station and making some crossings impassable for trucks.

As treacherous as it was, elected officials warned that the storm was a prelude to worse misery, with days of subzero wind chills ahead that could freeze snowy roads and put homeless people in grave danger.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said it could feel like minus 20 degrees on Friday and Saturday nights. There were 8 inches of snow in Central Park and more than 9 inches coating sections of Queens.

“This is a serious, serious storm,” de Blasio said at a news conference. “We expect tough conditions for days to come, particularly in terms of cold.”

At the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, often one of the coldest and most treacherous places in New England during a storm, the wind chill was expected to plummet as low as minus 95 degrees on Friday night, “which could cause frostbite in a matter of minutes,” said Caleb Meute, a staff meteorologist at the Mount Washington Observatory.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York declared a state of emergency for Westchester, New York City and Long Island, and state officials imposed speed restrictions on some bridges and banned trucks on others because of high winds.

Officials closed the runways at La Guardia and Kennedy Airports in New York and canceled nearly three-quarters of the day’s schedule at Newark Liberty International in New Jersey. Passengers were stranded far and wide, as airlines canceled more than 4,000 flights on Thursday and more than 600 on Friday, according to FlightAware.com, a website that tracks flights.

Utility companies hurried to restore electricity to tens of thousands of homes and businesses up and down the East Coast. Several public housing developments in New York City lost heat and hot water.

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper said two men died when a pickup truck overturned in an icy creek in Moore County, and a third death was reported in Beaufort County.

And in Savannah, Georgia, which recorded its first snowfall in years this week, several cars of an Amtrak train carrying more than 300 people from Miami to New York derailed, though it was not clear whether the storm was a factor. Officials said there were no reports of injuries.

New York City schools, closed Thursday, were expected to reopen Friday.

But Boston was recovering more slowly. School was canceled on Friday. The tides there were the highest in nearly 40 years, and meteorologists were working to determine whether they exceeded the tides that came in with the Blizzard of 1978.

Waters from the Massachusetts Bay poured into a subway station near the New England Aquarium and brought flooding to an unusually broad swath of the city, including the Seaport District, which is full of glassy new construction; Charlestown; the North End; Dorchester; and East Boston.

“It’s dangerous,” said Martin J. Walsh, the mayor of Boston, calling the storm a reminder of the damage expected as climate change drives stronger storms. “If anyone wants to question global warming, just see where the flood zones are.” Firefighters rescued someone from a car trapped in water nearly up to its door handles, said Joseph Finn, the commissioner of the Boston Fire Department.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen the water come this high in the downtown area,” Finn said. Firefighters inspected flooded buildings to see which ones could pose a fire risk and made a small number of additional rescues in coastal areas of the city, helping people out of stranded cars in the icy water.

“The tough part of this is it’s going to repeat itself at 12:30 tonight,” Finn said, referring to the next high tide.

In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority deployed an arsenal of equipment to keep the Long Island Rail Road running through the storm: switch heaters, third-rail heaters and antifreeze trains. That was little comfort for Ralph Girardi, who pulled a cellphone from his backpack inside the waiting area of the Bellmore station Thursday morning. He was not going to take any chances.

“I’m just about to call my boss and tell him I am turning around,” Girardi, 60, said. " I just don’t trust the trains. My concern is that I’m not going to be able to get out of the city later in the day.”

Cars were stranded on the Long Island Expressway and others skidded and slipped off the road as conditions deteriorated, Cuomo said, creating a “significant issue of public safety.”

In New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie declared a state of emergency, the winter storm created whiteout conditions on roadways, shut schools, delayed trains and even held up legislation. Winds tore the roof off a gas station in Garfield, New Jersey, on Thursday afternoon.

The state Senate and Assembly postponed votes that had been scheduled to cram key legislation into the final days of the lame-duck legislature, including a vote on $5 billion in potential tax credits to help lure Amazon to the state.

Any legislation needs to be voted on by noon Tuesday to be considered by Christie before a new legislature takes over and Gov.-elect Philip D. Murphy is sworn in. On Long Island, snow drifts piled up on every corner. Drivers crawled through a wall of white on roads littered with cars that had gotten stuck or had pulled over. Plows cleared roadways only for new gusts of snow to cover their handiwork.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said plow operators were struggling with whiteout conditions. If forecasts for frigid temperatures hold true, he said, “that snow and ice is going to be frozen in place.”

The shelves of some New York City grocery stores quickly emptied of milk, eggs and kale as New Yorkers stocked up for the storm, and grocers worried whether the next produce trucks would ever arrive.

The streets were largely empty at the height of the storm, with workers outside hotels and apartment buildings shoveling snow and then, as more fell, shoveling again.

Cars inched along roads in Queens, with a number of side streets still waiting to be plowed by the morning rush hour. Commuters kept their eyes to the ground, fearful of being battered by the horizontal snow.

On the aboveground subway platform at Astoria Boulevard, riders hid behind signs and advertisements to avoid the whipping winds. But on a morning like Thursday, commuters brave enough to face the storm welcomed the unexpected: the subways, at least for the moment, seemed to be running on time.