National News

Snow in Florida Just the Opening Act of an Explosive Storm

Posted January 3, 2018 10:42 p.m. EST
Updated January 3, 2018 10:51 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)

A powerful winter storm dealt a chilly blow to the southeastern United States on Wednesday as Floridians marveled at the rare sight of snow and officials warned of icy roads and dangerously low temperatures. All the while, residents of the Northeast prepared for windy, whiteout conditions and potential power losses.

The storm, referred to by some meteorologists as a “bomb cyclone” for its sudden drop in atmospheric pressure, prompted flight cancellations up and down the East Coast and forced dozens of school districts to cancel or delay classes along the path of the storm, including New York City schools. It was expected to bring more headaches to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast overnight when New York Citywas forecast to receive 5 to 8 inches of snowfall and up to 10 inches in Queens and Nassau counties.

The National Weather Service said blizzard warnings would take effect along the Virginia coast Wednesday, with travel “very dangerous to impossible” in the highly populated Hampton Roads region, which they said could receive up to 12 inches of snow in places. Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia declared a state of emergency. Blizzard conditions were expected to begin Thursday in parts of Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, according to forecasters.

“We’ve got plenty of bags of rock salt,” said Vic Kintanar, the manager of Waterman’s Surfside Grille, a restaurant by Virginia Beach’s boardwalk, hours before the storm hit. Workers had already closed off patio sections and were preparing for a smaller-than-usual crowd Thursday.

Although much of the South is accustomed to occasional winter snowfalls, Wednesday’s storm was setting records, and setting teeth on edge, in a region where even a couple of inches of snow has the potential to hobble an entire metropolis — as was the infamous case in Atlanta in 2014, when a mess of snow and ice stranded thousands of cars on major roads for hours.

In Georgia, where Gov. Nathan Deal declared an emergency for 28 southern counties, snow fell across rural areas and in Savannah, a city that normally swelters. On Wednesday, Savannah’s temperature hovered in the 20s as the city recorded about an inch of snow.

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency, and his office said the National Guard was on standby. The Raleigh-Durham area tied a record low of 9 degrees that had been set in 1887.

Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina said the storm would move beyond his state overnight, but he warned that temperatures would remain frigid through the weekend. McMaster urged residents to ensure people and pets were safe.

“If they can’t get into heat, they’ll freeze to death, and they’ll be gone,” he said. “And the same thing will happen to people who are outside.”

At a grocery store in Charleston, South Carolina, Chris Brown, a father of two daughters, stocked up on food to prepare to be snowed in. “I can’t believe how heavy it is,” he said of the snow. “I’m heading home to play with the kids.” — An ER doctor in Atlanta says ‘this is the most challenging winter.’

The new round of shivering prolonged what has already been a difficult period in the country’s emergency rooms. In the Atlanta area, where temperatures were hovering around freezing Wednesday but were expected to plunge into the teens after nightfall, doctors said they had been seeing an unusual number of patients with weather-related emergencies.

“This is the most challenging winter, in terms of exposure, that I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Brooks Moore, the assistant medical director of the emergency department at Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta’s public hospital.

Moore said that about 20 people were arriving at the emergency room each day with minor complaints related to the weather, and that about the same number were appearing with conditions like asthma or emphysema that were exacerbated by the cold.

He added that doctors were seeing more about one or two patients a day whose core body temperatures had fallen into the low 80s — normal is about 98.6 degrees — and required “aggressive re-warming” techniques.

— So, what’s this about a ‘bomb cyclone’?

When discussing the storm, some weather forecasters have referred to a “bomb cyclone.” Calling it a bomb sounds dire, but such storms are not exceedingly rare — there was one in New England recently.

What makes a storm a bomb is how fast the atmospheric pressure falls; falling atmospheric pressure is a characteristic of all storms. By definition, the barometric pressure must drop by at least 24 millibars in 24 hours for a storm to be called a bomb cyclone.

Here is how it works: Deep drops in barometric pressure occur when a region of warm air meets one of cold air. The air starts to move, and the rotation of the Earth creates a cyclonic effect. The direction is counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere (when viewed from above), leading to winds that come out of the northeast — a nor’easter.

That’s what happened at the end of October, when warm air from the remnants of a tropical cyclone over the Atlantic collided with a cold front coming from the Midwest. Among other impacts then, more than 80,000 electric customers in Maine lost power as high winds toppled trees.

A similar effect was occurring Wednesday, as warm air over the ocean met extremely cold polar air that had descended over the East. Pressure was expected to fall quickly from Florida northward.

— The north, too, had begun buckling down for a major blow.

The Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, with heavy snowfall and wind chills of up to minus 25 degrees expected.

Kathryn Garcia, the commissioner of the Department of Sanitation in New York City, encouraged New Yorkers to avoid driving and use mass transit instead.

The New York City Department of Education announced Wednesday evening that all public schools would be closed Thursday. It was the second time in a year that the city made an early call to close schools ahead of a storm. Last March, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at noon the day before a predicted snowstorm that schools would be closed; in the end that storm was less severe than expected, but the mayor received little criticism for his caution.

Chilly gusts of up to 50 mph were likely to whip eastern Long Island and southeastern Connecticut starting late Thursday morning, with the potential for downed tree limbs and scattered power failures, the National Weather Service said.

For Bostonians, Wednesday’s forecast high of 28 degrees was almost a welcome relief after days of temperatures that had hovered in or near the single digits. But it was quite literally cold comfort, with Thursday’s storm expected to drop 10 to 14 inches of snow or more on the city and potentially create blizzard conditions along the New England coast.

The storm was to follow a long period of deep cold that has already taxed transit systems, fuel supplies and homeless shelters in the region. Residents were preparing while insisting they had been through worse.

“It’s good to have at least four major meals ahead of you,” said Forrest McFarland, a retiree from Cambridge, Massachusetts, as he made the rounds at Market Basket, a busy grocery store in nearby Somerville. “Since ’78,” he said, referring to the legendary blizzard that ground the Northeast to a halt, “everybody stocks up.”

— Some like the cold: ‘Right now, 8 degrees is what we want.’

Washington, too,remained firmly in the grip of a winter that has already proved treacherous. The District of Columbia government activated its cold emergency plan on Dec. 27, and on Wednesday, it extended it further. Around an inch of snow is expected in the morning, with a winter weather advisory in effect until 11 a.m. Thursday.

Hamlet Diaz, 38, said the temperatures were exactly what he was hoping for as his family drove home from an Ontario vacation to Pembroke Pines, Florida.

“We wanted to be cold,” he said of his wife, Rachel, and two daughters. “Right now, 8 degrees is what we want.”

Snow even fell on Tallahassee, Florida’s capital. More than 50 miles of Interstate 10 were closed in the Tallahassee area, as well as parts of Highway 90. Mark Wool, a Weather Service meteorologist, said that flurries seemed to come along every few years there. But the snow accumulation Wednesday — about a tenth to two-tenths of an inch — had not been seen since 1989. — What’s happening to the birds that flew south for the winter?

Geoff LeBaron, the director of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, a kind of early-winter bird census that has been taking place since the year 1900, said that, fortunately, birds that could not effectively withstand cold snaps were already farther south than the continental United States.

“Warblers, thrushes, tanagers, they’re down in Central and South America,” he said. “The birds that winter in the Southern U.S. are better able to withstand the temperatures and have more flexibility in terms of the food they can eat.”

LeBaron said that waterfowl and marsh birds might be affected if there was significant snow cover or if water sources were frozen over. And he warned that the increasing number of hummingbirds that spend the winter in the South might be affected, and said that people who maintain the birds’ feeders should keep the feeders warm and well supplied.

But he said that the short amount of time the cold was expected to last would allow others to scrounge through.

“The birds that are wintering down there are going to have to hunker down and deal with the conditions,” he said.

Just like the humans.