- Associated Press - Saturday, December 25, 2010

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Heavy snow has been predicted for the nation’s capital on Sunday from a storm that gave a rare white Christmas to parts of the South and caused airlines to cancel hundreds of flights on Saturday.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jared Klein on Saturday said the storm could dump 6 to 10 inches on the Washington area by the time it is finished.

The weather service issued a winter storm warning Saturday afternoon for the D.C. region, beginning Sunday morning and running through Monday, saying the chance of snow in the area for Sunday is near 100 percent.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said it is monitoring the forecast in the Washington region and has crews on standby to remove snow from Metro station entrances and platforms if necessary.

Metro said it will operate a very close-to-normal rail schedule in snowfall of up to 6 inches. But if snow reaches a depth of 8 inches, Metro may suspend rail service above ground.

D.C. Department of Transportation spokeswoman Karyn LeBlanc said Saturday that the city, which has been monitoring the possibility of snow since early this week, will dispatch a few crews Saturday night to begin pre-treating roads if necessary. A full deployment of close to 200 pieces of equipment will go out Sunday in anticipation of the snow.

Bridges, ramps, overpasses and major roads will be treated first with brine, Ms. LeBlanc said, and once snow begins falling, residents should stay off side streets and travel on major roads.

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell on Saturday declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm.

The declaration gives state agencies authorization to assist local governments responding to the winter weather on Saturday and Sunday. The governor’s office said Mr. McDonnell declared a state of emergency out of an abundance of caution to make sure the necessary resources are available.

State agencies are holding weather conference calls with the National Weather Service and local governments, and Virginia State Police and the Department of Transportation are preparing to keep roadways clear and help drivers.

The Virginia National Guard also has been authorized to bring personnel on state active duty.

Continental and United airlines issued a news release on Saturday saying that weather conditions likely would force delays and cancellations at United’s hub at Washington Dulles International Airport and at other northeastern airports between Saturday and Monday. Both carriers are waiving fees for one-time changes in affected areas and urged passengers to make changes through their websites.

Futher up the Eastern Seaboard, Delaware also was bracing for a foot of snow.

The weather service now says the snow is likely to begin in the state Sunday morning and end by dawn Monday. Accumulations of between 8 and 12 inches were forecast for parts of the state, and a storm warning was in effect from 7 a.m. Sunday to 1 p.m. Monday.

Delaware Emergency Management spokeswoman Rosanne Pack said residents should consider traveling Saturday evening or very early Sunday morning in advance of the snow.

Residents in eastern Pennsylvania were bracing for 8 to 12 inches of snow for Philadelphia and its suburbs during the winter warning period, which begins at 7 a.m. Sunday and runs through 1 p.m. Monday.

Forecasters also were predicting winds of 20 to 30 mph with gusts over 40 mph. Officials were urging people not to travel if possible because of the expected snow and reduced visibility caused by blowing and drifting snow — echoing a warning issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation earlier in the week.

“If a winter storm does strike, our advice is to avoid traveling unless absolutely necessary — for your own safety,” PennDOT Secretary Allen D. Biehler said in a statement. “If you must travel, use common sense, pack an emergency kit, have realistic expectations of road conditions, and remember that if winter precipitation is falling, roads will not be completely free of ice and snow.”

The weather service also forecast possible Sunday snow for the New York and Boston areas, with overnight temperatures in the 20s and wind gusts up to 30 mph. Continental Airlines announced Saturday evening that it was canceling 250 flights departing from Newark Liberty International Airport outside New York.

The snowstorm blanketed sections of the Midwest and hampered motorists there on Christmas Eve before dipping south late Friday. Winter weather advisories were in effect Saturday afternoon from western Tennessee to the Carolinas and from West Virginia to Alabama.

The Carolinas got their first white Christmas in decades as snow began falling Saturday morning in Asheville, N.C., spread to Raleigh, N.C., by noon and was forecast to stretch to the coast later in the day.

The weather service issued winter storm warnings with forecasts calling for up to 6 inches of snow in central North Carolina, with more in the mountains and less on the coast. In South Carolina, forecasts called for rain turning to snow after dark.

It’s the first Christmas snow for the Carolinas since 1989, when a foot fell along the coast. For Columbia, S.C., it’s the first significant Christmas snow since weather records were first kept in 1887.

In Asheville, the weather service said snow fell at the rate of about an inch an hour earlier in the day and mountain roads would be impassable for all but four-wheel-drive vehicles. As much as 10 inches could fall by Sunday morning, which would break the previous Christmas Day record of 5.4 inches set in 1969.

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton declared a state of emergency Saturday.

The North Carolina Highway Patrol said most of the roads in and around Asheville were either covered or partially covered with snow and ice as of 6 p.m. Authorities said troopers in the two dozen westernmost counties had answered 350 calls between 12:01 a.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday. Most of them were wrecks.

In upstate South Carolina, rain mixed with a light snow in the late afternoon, but it wasn’t causing immediate road problems, said Highway Patrol Lance Cpl. Bill Rhyne.

In Nashville, some travelers who expected a smooth trip on Christmas got a rude surprise.

“We were hoping this was going to be a good day to travel,” said Heather Bansmer, 36, of Bellingham, Wash.

She and her husband, Shawn Breeding, 40, planned to return home on separate flights after a visit to Mr. Breeding’s family in Bowling Green, Ky. However, Mr. Breeding’s flight through Atlanta got canceled.

Now the couple planned to spend much of Christmas Day in separate airports.

“A white Christmas is not so welcome,” Mr. Breeding said as the couple stood in the lobby of the Nashville airport with their luggage in a cart.

Brian Korty at the National Weather Service in Camp Springs, Md., said travelers in the northern Mid-Atlantic region and New England may want to rethink Sunday travel plans.

“They may see nearly impossible conditions to travel in,” he said. “It would be a lot better for them to travel today than it would be tomorrow.”

In Pensacola, Fla., Jena Passut faced a quandary. The 36-year-old magazine writer drove with her husband and two kids from Fairfax, Va., to visit relatives. Now she worried about how to get back home amid the snow.

“Should we leave on Christmas night? My kids are normally good travelers, but if it’s going to take us twice as long, it’s going to be hell,” she said. “I like a white Christmas as much as anyone, but I don’t want to drive in it.”

Delta Air Lines spokesman Kent Landers said 500 weather-related flight cancellations were planned for Saturday nationwide. That included 300 of the 800 scheduled departures from the Atlanta hub.

Only a few hundred people milled about the cavernous terminals at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, many of them recent arrivals from international flights. Passengers were notified Friday when flights were pre-emptively canceled, so most didn’t bother to show up. Many chairs were empty; restaurants, too.

Some couldn’t help but chuckle that the flights were nixed long before the first raindrop or snowflake had fallen. Snow didn’t begin falling in Atlanta until Saturday afternoon.

“They canceled hundreds of flights, and there hasn’t even been a drop of rain,” said Stephanie Palmer, who was killing time with her friend Ibrahima Soumano as he awaited a flight to Mali. “This doesn’t make sense.”

Mr. Landers said Delta would decide on possible additional Sunday cancellations as the time approaches. He said anyone with travel plans through Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington and Newark, N.J., on Sunday or Monday can change their flight without a penalty as long as they travel by Dec. 29.

AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver said Saturday that the carrier had canceled seven Saturday flights and that afternoon flights from Atlanta would be delayed because of required de-icing of planes. AirTran, too, offered to waive ticket-change fees for some flights scheduled for this weekend and Monday in the South and Mid-Atlantic.

The Nashville area had an inch or so of snow overnight, and roads appeared to be clear. There was also snow in northern Alabama.

By Saturday morning, 4 to 5 inches of snow had fallen over several hours in Bowling Green, Ky., according to the weather service. Louisville, Ky., had about an inch.

Louisville last had snowfall on Christmas in 2002, when a half-inch fell.

The snow made traveling tough Friday in northeastern Iowa, where the bulk of the storm hovered. Cedar Rapids received more than 7 inches of snow.

Travelers could see airport screeners taking a closer look at empty insulated beverage containers such as thermoses because air carriers were alerted about a potential terror tactic involving them, an administration official said.

The Air Transport Association was expecting 44.3 million people on U.S. flights between Dec. 16 and Jan. 5 — up 3 percent over a similar period a year ago but still below pre-recession travel volume. The average ticket price was $421, up by 5 percent.

The AAA predicted overall holiday travel to rise about 3 percent this year, with more than 92 million people planning to go more than 50 miles by Jan. 2. More than 90 percent said they would be driving.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko, Eileen Sullivan and Samantha Bomkamp in Washington; Karen Hawkins in Chicago; Warren Levinson and Verena Dobnik in New York; David Goodman in Detroit; Michelle Price in Phoenix; Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Ky.; Leonard Pallats and Greg Bluestein in Atlanta; and Mark Pratt in Boston.


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