Massive storm cripples East Coast

By Lisa Anderson Chicago Tribune (KRT) NEW YORK _ Packing high winds, low temperatures and the punch of a double-barreled storm system, the Blizzard of ’03 roared up the Eastern Seaboard on Monday, closing airports, paralyzing highways and dumping nearly two feet of snow or more on cities from Washington to Boston. The impact of the monster storm, the worst to hit the East Coast since 1996, was blunted because many schools, businesses and government offices were closed for the Presidents’ Day holiday. And many Americans took the opportunity to go out and play. From the streets of the nation’s capital to the canyons of Manhattan, children broke out sleds, adults snapped on cross-country skis and dogs _ some wearing coats and booties _ frolicked in Arctic-like landscapes dotted with towering, wind-sculpted snowdrifts. “We had planned to go to Canada over the holiday, but we may skip it now,” said Lewis Antine, strapping on snowshoes at the edge of New York’s Central Park with Eileen Stareshefsky. “WHITEOUT” screamed the front page of the New York Post, which regaled readers with details of “A BURY, BURY BIG SNOWSTORM.” In a bow to the brute force of the storm, the Daily News front page blared: “SNOW BELT.” Blinding snow, driven by winds up to 40 mph obscured the giant video screens mounted in Times Square and made on-the-scene TV reporters suddenly vanish behind swirling veils of snow. A trip to the corner deli took on the character of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole. The storm caused plenty of problems, including highway accidents, stranded travelers, power outages and other headaches. Weather-related deaths included two in Illinois, one in Nebraska, six in West Virginia, six in Missouri, four in Iowa, one in Ohio and one in New Jersey. Born of a system that originated in the West and joined forces with a coastal Nor’Easter, the storm at one point muscled its way across a swath stretching from the Midwest to the East Coast. By Sunday night, it was blasting New England. With most major East Coast airports either closed or operating marginally Monday and Amtrak canceling one-quarter of its trains, thousands of travelers around the country found themselves going nowhere. “I’ve got to tell you, it’s been an interesting first month on the job here,” new Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich told CNN. “We have not been bored.” New York Gov. George Pataki declared a state of emergency in the New York metropolitan area and several eastern upstate counties, a move that releases state and federal funds to help pay clean-up costs. “It’s very pretty. It is also very inconvenient and very expensive, but we’re dealing with it,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With every inch of snowfall estimated to cost the city $1 million, the final bill may total at least $20 million, he said. (EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM) Most New York City department stores and Broadway theaters opened their doors to snare the hardy, but the Rockefeller Center skating rink was closed for the first time in seven years due to snow. On Broadway, also for the first time since the last big storm in 1996, long-running “Phantom of the Opera” decided the show could not go on Monday night due to the weather. The city’s 1,700 plows and salt trucks struggled to keep up with the snow all day, clearing most main streets but leaving many side streets still blanketed. Bus and rail service was limited due to ice and snow. But if passengers could get down snowbound station stairs, the city’s subways were zipping along underground. (END OPTIONAL TRIM) Having already dumped 19.5 inches by nightfall, the snowstorm certainly will rank among the city’s top five. It has a good chance of surpassing the 20.2 inches that fell in the January 1996 storm and even has a shot at taking the top slot from the December 1947 storm that dropped 26 inches. Snow was expected to continue falling in New York into the night. In Washington, steady snow fell until shortly before noon on Monday, making streets fit only for pedestrians, cross-country skiers and sport utility vehicles. With most government offices closed for the federal holiday, the capital had the eerie aspect of a ghost town in Alaska. Schools, businesses and restaurants were closed, as were the monuments and memorials on the National Mall, the Smithsonian Institution museum complex, the National Gallery of Art and the city’s other art museums. There was bus service, but it seemed more rumor than fact. The Metro subway line was running on a modified holiday basis, but all the above-ground stations were closed because of icing on the electrical third rails on the tracks, cutting off service for a large part of the system in the outlying suburbs. (EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM) Union Station was jammed with travelers, creating a scene reminiscent of travel during the Russian Revolution as depicted in the film “Dr. Zhivago.” Many arriving in Washington by rail could find no cabs, and could be seen dragging their luggage through the snow drifts over many blocks to hotels. A procession of the hardy and heavily bundled made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue. On Presidents’ Day, the Lincoln Memorial was a popular spot for those brave enough to tackle the snow-and-ice-covered marble steps. Signs warning “No Sliding” went unheeded as the tall monument to the 16th American president became one of the most popular sledding spots in the city. “We were bound and determined not to let this weather keep us all plugged up inside somewhere,” said tourist Dennis Gillies of Portland, Ore., who stood at the foot of the giant statue of Lincoln. “We’re brave enough for a little snow.” Many Bush administration officials, still operating under a high terrorism alert, were unable to reach their offices as a limited number of city plows struggled to work through at least 16 inches of snow. (END OPTIONAL TRIM) The storm forced the White House to cancel a morning speech by President Bush, who had returned early from Camp David, Md., because of the weather. But Bush did keep a scheduled meeting with Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, leader of one of the 10 Eastern European nations backing the president in his drive for war against Iraq. (EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) Mayor Anthony Williams, who returned to Washington late Sunday from a Puerto Rican vacation, urged patience. He said the snow was unlikely to be removed for up to three days. “Once you’ve plowed this stuff, where do you dump these mountains of stuff?” Williams asked reporters on Monday. ___ (Chicago Tribune correspondents Michael Kilian, Jeff Zeleny and Bryan A. Keogh in Washington contributed to this report.) ___ ‘copy 2003, Chicago Tribune. Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.