National News

Wind and Snow Pick Up as Storm Stops Flights and Cancels Trains

Posted January 4, 2018 3:06 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)

NEW YORK — With twisting winds and sideways gusts of snow, the first major snowstorm of the season lashed New York City on Thursday, slowing commutes, shuttering schools and punishing those who stepped outside with weather that had started in Florida and turned into a swirling blizzard by the time it charged up the Northeast.

The storm stopped flights at La Guardia Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport, canceled trains, slowed traffic to a crawl and sent squalls of snow flying into underground subway stations and through the corridors between Manhattan skyscrapers.

Six inches of snow had piled up in parts of Brooklyn and Queens by noon, while sections of Long Island were coated in 9 inches. Wind gusts topped 40 mph in the city and neared 60 mph on Long Island.

The National Weather Service updated its forecast to predict 8 inches of snow in New York City and 15 inches on the eastern end of Long Island. And even as 1,500 snow plows and 693 salt spreaders moved through the city, the region braced for nights ahead of toe-numbing cold, with Mayor Bill de Blasio saying it could feel like 20 below zero on Friday and Saturday nights with the wind chill.

“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.”

Several public housing developments had lost heat and hot water. De Blasio said he expected city schools to open Friday, but he had not made a final decision.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York declared a state of emergency for the southern part of the state. Cars had been stranded overnight on the Long Island Expressway as road conditions deteriorated, Cuomo said, creating a “significant issue of public safety.”

The state imposed speed restrictions on some roads and banned trucks on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge because of high winds.

The region’s airports remained open, but all flights were suspended at La Guardia and Kennedy airports. At Newark Liberty International in New Jersey, airlines had canceled 867 flights, nearly three-quarters of the day’s schedule.

Martin Acosta, 26, from Chihuahua, Mexico, was boarding a bus to La Guardia Airport in Jackson Heights, Queens, for his return trip. He tried visiting Central Park on Thursday morning, but was stopped by the snow. And now he was struggling to get an answer from his airline’s customer service line about the fate of his flight.

“So I’m going there myself to find out when I can leave,” he said.

The governors of New Jersey and Connecticut told nonessential state employees to stay home and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey declared a state of emergency for Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth and Ocean counties.

In Asbury Park, in Monmouth County, the first plows started scraping the pavement before 6 a.m., moving through clouds of wind-whipped snow that blew horizontally down Ocean Avenue and the boardwalk. With schools and many businesses closed, there were few signs of activity in the blue-gray morning.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority was deploying 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. 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.”

At about 11:30 a.m., the Long Island Rail Road suspended service on the West Hempstead branch because of switch problems caused by weather. The Metro-North Railroad said wind and snow were causing delays on its Hudson Line. It said that some trains may be combined or canceled.

Cuomo said the evening rush was expected to be worse.

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 them again.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone declared a state of emergency Thursday morning, making the county eligible for disaster funding.

“The storm has worsened and it’s definitely lived up to its billing,” said Bellone. “We’re dealing with white-out conditions that make it difficult for plow operators to maneuver and do their work, let alone normal driving.” Bellone had been on the roads all day, he said, and saw “way too many motorists on the road” early on. And with weather forecasters predicting frigid temperatures following the storm, challenges abound.

If it stays cold, he said, “that snow and ice is going to be frozen in place.”

Cars were skidding and slipping in the northern suburbs, too. Westchester County police officers removed a dozen disabled cars on four county parkways in the early hours of Thursday’s commute.

“The roads are slick, they are icy and snow-covered,” said Christine Kelleher, a spokeswoman for the Westchester County Police. “We recommend that you stay off them. Most of the disabled cars have been spinouts.”

The NYC Ferry suspended service to some of its docks Thursday morning, but continued to operate other routes on the East River.

Aside from a handful of delivery trucks and bike messengers, the major thoroughfares of Astoria were largely empty Thursday morning, as the storm descended on the northwestern corner of Queens.

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

Snowy wind battered cars on aboveground subway trains in Queens, blowing in when doors opened at each stop. Commuters hastily entered, kicked off the snow on their boots, and held onto bars as the floor proved slippery.

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