Worst blizzards in 10 years blanket north east of US


THE most severe winter storm in more than a decade blanketed the north eastern United States with a thick layer of snow yesterday, shutting airports, blocking roads and paralysing several major cities and towns.

Washington was worst hit yesterday as the storm, dubbed "The Blizzard of 96" by meteorologists, moved slowly up the east coast. Skiers took to the streets in the US capital after up to 18 inches of snow fell in as many hours.

A state of emergency was declared in Washington, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey as the snow fell at the rate of more than an inch an hour. In Virginia, Governor George Allen dispatched the National Guard to help stranded drivers. In North Carolina 28 inches of snow blocked roads yesterday afternoon.

Blizzard warnings were issued in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York, which began to take the brunt of the storm last night as the weather system moved north. All schools in the New York area were closed as forecasters warned of two feet of snow.

Almost all flights in and out of Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia were cancelled yesterday, and air and road transport throughout the north east is expected to remain paralysed today.

Panic buying of bread, milk - and shovels - was reported in supermarkets in cities all along the east coast.

More than 11 inches of snow had accumulated by midday yesterday at Washington National Airport, which handles 500 flights a day, and 14 inches at Dulles.

Washington's snowfall, which could break the record of 28 inches in January, 1922, prevented the return to work of thousands of federal workers after a three week partial government shutdown.

Forecasters predicted a total accumulation of 30 inches of snowing the Washington area.

Government offices, universities, schools, and shopping malls were closed in Washington and museums and art galleries, which shad just re opened after the budget stand off, were shut again as the city council declared a snow emergency.

Under the emergency, cars are not allowed onto the roads unless equipped to deal with snow conditions, and vehicles parked along designated snow emergency routes are towed away and their owners fined. Taxis are also authorised to double their fares.

One weather forecaster told television viewers, "This is the Superbowl of snowstorms, the like of which you have not seen in your lifetime."

Officials in Washington admitted they were fighting a losing battle with the dry, drifting, snow, and that the city's 153 snow trucks were unable to keep up with a rate of one to two inches an hour. Many residents used skis to commute across town.

All Washington area Catholics were excused by the Archdiocese from going to Mass yesterday and television and radio stations warned people not to leave their homes. President Clinton and Mrs Hillary Rodham Clinton were shown on television wading through snowdrifts from the White House to morning service.

The snow is likely to cause the postponement of budget talks between President Clinton and Congressional leaders today.

Temperatures stayed below -9 C (16 Fahrenheit) in the US capital, with a strong wind gusting last night which forecasters said could drive the wind chill factor down as low as -28 degrees Celsius (-20 Fahrenheit).

Blizzard warnings were issued yesterday from northern Virginia to New York, including parts of Delaware and Pennsylvania. A blizzard is defined as a storm with winds of more than 30 miles an hour and snowfall of at least one inch an hour, creating low visibility.

The blizzard resulted from what forecasters described as a classic "winter storm" weather pattern. A 170 mph jet stream dipped across the US last week forcing a low, pressure area up the Atlantic coast, which drew in moisture over the exceptionally cold air mass in the north east.

In Pennsylvania, not even an ice show could withstand the snow and freezing temperatures. The touring Disney on Ice show reported it was cancelling all shows on Sunday at the Spectrum, in south Philadelphia.