It Starts Postcard-Pretty, but This Snowstorm Is Deadly

January 23, 2016

A storm that arrived postcard-pretty in the nation’s capital Friday was morphing into a painful, even paralyzing blizzard with gale-force winds pushing heavy snow and coastal flooding. One in seven Americans could get at least half a foot of snow by Sunday, and Washington could see snowdrifts more than four feet high.

The first flakes were lovely, but forecasters warned that much, much more was on its way.

Not that anyone will see the worst of it: Much heavier snow and wind gusting to 50 mph should create blinding whiteout conditions once the storm joins up with a low pressure system off the coast, said Bruce Sullivan, a forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

Two feet or more of snowfall is forecast for Washington and Baltimore, and nearly as much for Philadelphia. New York City’s expected total was upped Friday to a foot or more. But Sullivan said “the winds are going to be the real problem; that’s when we’ll see possible power outages.”

The result could create snowdrifts four to five feet high, so even measuring it for records could be difficult, he said.

By evening, wet, heavy snow was falling in the capital, making downed power lines more likely, and yet many people remained on the roads, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said. “Find a safe place and stay there,” she beseeched.

Anyone trying to travel in this mess risks getting stuck for hours, marooned in odd places, or killed, authorities warned. At least seven people died in storm-related crashes before the worst of the storm, including Stacy Sherrill, whose car plummeted off an icy road in Tennessee. Her husband survived after climbing for hours up a 300-foot embankment.

“They’re slipping and sliding all over the place,” said Kentucky State Police Trooper Lloyd Cochran — as soon as one wreck was cleared, other cars slammed into each other, causing gridlock for hours on interstate highways.

Conditions quickly became treacherous all along the path of the storm. Arkansas and Tennessee got eight inches; Kentucky got more than a foot, and states across the Deep South grappled with icy, snow-covered roads and power outages. Two tornadoes arrived along with the snow in Mississippi.

The storm could easily cause more than $1 billion in damage, weather service director Louis Uccellini said.

All the ingredients have come together for a massive snowfall: The winds initially picked up warm water from the Gulf of Mexico, and now the storm is taking much more moisture from the warmer-than-usual Gulf Stream as it rotates slowly over mid-Atlantic states, with the District of Columbia in its bulls-eye.

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