By Kate Taylor and Julie Bosman
A major winter storm was on a path Friday to wallop as many as 80 million people in the Midwest and Northeast over the weekend with a punishing mix of heavy snow, strong winds and frigid temperatures.
In Kansas, officials dispensed warnings to ranchers about how to keep their horses from freezing to death. Small towns notified residents that their plows might not keep up with the rapid snowfall, leaving streets impassable. And, in a foretaste of the chaos likely to ensnarl the country’s transportation networks, hundreds of flights were canceled at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, before a single snowflake had fallen there.
The storm was also expected to further strain the National Weather Service, where many employees have been furloughed as part of the partial government shutdown. Others — including those putting out the storm warnings that state and local officials rely on for their planning — are considered essential and are working without pay.
“I’ve been working for the National Weather Service for over 27 years — I’ve never seen the morale as low as it is right now,” said Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.
He said that the job of making forecasts in a major storm was inherently stressful, and would be doubly so at a time when employees were also worrying about how to pay basic expenses like rent and child care. “We’re human beings,” he said.
The weather system has already deluged the West, causing power losses, flooding, mudslides and deaths. About 80 million people, from the Dakotas to Maine, were under some form of winter weather advisory, and meteorologists warned against driving during the height of the storm.
“Where you show up Saturday night, you should plan on staying there until Monday morning,” Derek Schroeter, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Gray, Maine, advised people in the Northeast.
In the Rockies and the Plains, some schools were closed Friday. The National Weather Service in Boulder, Colorado, said that avalanche danger was high in some parts of the Rocky Mountains, with winds up to 40 mph in places above timberline. Already, the storm has caused a truck to plunge off the Colorado’s main east-west highway near Vail, spilling wooden crates onto the wet ground and prompting the Colorado State Patrol to send a cleanup crew into the slushy mess. And authorities closed the airport in Omaha, Nebraska, after a Southwest Airlines plane slid off an icy runway, The Associated Press reported.
In Aberdeen, South Dakota, where temperatures dropped to 3 degrees by midday Friday, Hassan Yusuf, a manager at Banadir Kitchen, an East African restaurant, said he had not opened for lunch because he figured no one would come in.
“Our customers stay home on days like this,” said Yusuf, who is originally from Somalia. “I don’t want to be outside either. When I shovel the snow, I feel the pain in my fingers.”
As the storm sweeps east and then north, Des Moines, Iowa, was forecast to get 8 inches of snow; Youngstown, Ohio, 10 inches; Allentown, Pennsylvania, 8 inches; and Bennington, Vermont, 19 inches.
Schroeter of the National Weather Service said the area he covers, New Hampshire and Western Maine, could get 12 to 18 inches of snow, with the heaviest snowfall early Sunday morning.
The storm will be followed by numbing temperatures, 15 to 25 degrees below normal across the Plains and the Upper Midwest. Some areas near Albany, New York, were predicted to have low temperatures between minus 10 and minus 20.
“The concern would be, if you do lose power, the cold’s going to be pretty significant Sunday night and Monday,” Schroeter said, adding that he was not expecting major power failures in his area, because the snow was unlikely to be wet and heavy enough to bring down trees.
States of emergencies were declared in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania also banned commercial vehicles from some highways between noon Saturday and noon Sunday, and reduced speed limits to 45 mph on interstates and expressways.
In Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, about two hours’ drive northeast of State College, the borough manager, Scot Boyce Jr., said it was likely to be the biggest storm he had handled in his not-quite two years on the job.
With between 12 and 18 inches of snow predicted, he used the Police Department’s Facebook page to warn Wellsboro’s 3,300 residents that, at some point, the borough’s eight plow drivers would probably not be able to keep up with the snow accumulation.
“By the looks of what we’re going to get, we’re probably going to pull the plows right off the streets after a while,” to save gas and give the drivers time to sleep, Boyce said.
But in at least one place, the advent of cold temperatures was welcome news.
In Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, mild weather this winter has thwarted the efforts of workers building a giant ice castle, a tourist attraction where tickets are expected to cost as much as $18.95 a person. The opening of the castle had been delayed repeatedly because of above-average temperatures in December and January.
“They’ve melted down three different times,” said Nancy Daugherty, who works for the town’s Chamber of Commerce and also answers questions at the town’s visitor center. “They’ve had to keep rebuilding.”