Millions of people snowed in by East Coast storm over the weekend slog back to work

By Larry Neumeister, AP
Monday, December 21, 2009

Storm-walloped East Coast returns to work _ slowly

NEW YORK — Millions of East Coast commuters returned to work Monday over slick roads and icy sidewalks after a weekend winter storm dropped record snowfall, interrupted holiday shopping and stranded travelers.

The storm crept up the coast on Saturday and Sunday, walloping states from the mid-Atlantic to New England, causing hundreds of delayed or canceled flights, widespread power outages and treacherous driving conditions. The weather was blamed for at least six deaths, including a snowmobile driver who crashed head-on into a horse-drawn buggy in Pennsylvania’s Amish country.

Despite its powerful punch, many took solace in the fact that the storm’s timing could have been worse, even if it left people trapped in their homes all weekend.

Thomas Standers, of New Rochelle, N.Y., was feeding dozens of Christmas cards into a mailbox at the train station in Pelham early Monday.

“If we hadn’t been stuck inside all weekend, these would never have gotten done,” he said. “Now we have a fighting chance they’ll get there by Christmas.”

Many schools and offices were closed Monday, making traffic a little lighter on slow-moving roads and lessening the strain on beleaguered transit systems.

In Washington, federal agencies were closed Monday and bus service was running behind schedule, but the Metro finally was able to open all 86 of its rail stations. Subways had been limited to underground stations for two days.

Commuters found it slow going in Philadelphia, where many residential streets were still snow-covered and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority suspended service on some bus routes.

In New York City, hundreds of subway employees worked overnight to finish cleaning platforms, but the Long Island Rail Road urged its riders to allow extra time. The Long Island Expressway was “pretty much dry,” but secondary roads were covered, said Richard Castro, who drove Monday from Queens to the National Weather Service campus in Upton.

J. Silhan worked an overnight shift at the Gurney’s Inn oceanfront resort in Montauk, N.Y., after spending all day Sunday plowing and digging out people’s houses with his father-in-law.

“I’ve been up 24 hours,” Silhan said Monday morning. “I’m going to go crash” — hastily emphasizing that he meant “sleep.”

Silhan said some of the inn’s guests were caught off guard by the storm.

“A lot of people came out from the city thinking it’s going to be fine, not a problem,” Silhan said. “Then Sunday morning, they wake up saying, ‘Oh crap.’”

Even as some workers returned to the job Monday, their children were being given the day off.

Philadelphia’s public and Roman Catholic schools were closed to give the city another day to clear streets and sidewalks. Schools also were closed Monday in Baltimore, Roanoke, Va., most of Washington’s suburbs and many Long Island towns, among other areas. Washington, D.C., public schools were already scheduled to be on winter break Monday.

Meanwhile, airports in the Northeast that were jammed up this weekend were working their way back to normal. On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration was reporting that all major airports on the East Coast had average flight delays of less than 15 minutes.

Still, three major airports in the New York City area were expecting an unusually busy holiday travel week as many who were stranded by the cancellation of 1,200 flights over the weekend try to make it to their destinations.

On the rails, Amtrak canceled some trains in the East on Monday because of the storm and warned that long-distance trains to the South and West faced substantial delays.

Power outages remained an issue. More than 130,000 people were without power in West Virginia and Virginia as of Monday morning.

The storm came on the last weekend before Christmas, and merchants feared they’d take a hit as the storm blew through, shutting people indoors. Crowds were unusually light Sunday morning at the Providence Place mall in downtown Providence, where Reuben Tillman III, a salesman at Champs Sports, said he had made only one sale in his first couple of hours at work.

“But I do have a theory: Everybody who’s here has a SUV,” he said. “This is happy truck day.”

Tillman predicted that business would be booming closer to Christmas, with people who opted to stay home on Sunday doing last-minute shopping on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Shoppers who did venture out made the most of it.

James Phyfe, of Cranston, R.I., took advantage of the meager crowds at the Providence Place mall to buy gifts, including a toy soccer ball, for his toddler son.

“I came out because I knew there’d be no crowds around,” he said.

The storm yielded record snowfall totals at several locations. The 16 inches recorded Saturday at Reagan National Airport outside Washington was the most ever for a December day. Philadelphia, which recorded 23.2 inches, had its second-largest snowfall since it began keeping records in 1884.

The storm began wreaking misery Friday in South Florida, where it caused flooding and knocked out electricity in the Carolinas before turning to snow as it moved north.

One person in Virginia was killed in a traffic accident, and authorities said the weather may have contributed to another traffic death there. A third death in Virginia is believed to have been caused by exposure.

In Pennsylvania, a 20-year-old man was killed Saturday afternoon when the snowmobile he was driving crashed head-on into a horse-drawn buggy. The two people in the buggy were unhurt.

In Ohio, two people were killed in accidents on snow-covered roads. In western North Carolina, a man was killed when his car slid down an embankment.

A plow truck driver was found dead in his truck with the motor running Sunday on New York’s Long Island, but it was unclear whether his death was related to the storm, police said.

Black ice will be a concern Monday night after sunshine and “a little bit of melting,” said Castro, of the Weather Service.

Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Providence, R.I.; Jim Fitzgerald in Pelham, N.Y.; and Kiley Armstrong and Ula Ilnytzky in New York City contributed to this report.

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