NEW YORK: Millions of Christmas travellers were caught in the wintry grip of a massive blizzard yesterday that brought snow-related chaos to air, road and train transit across the eastern United States.
Just as passengers trapped by freezing weather in Europe began returning home as flights resumed normal service on Christmas Day, it was the turn of US travelers to face relentless snow, dangerous winds and unforgiving cold.
The inclement weather could not come at a worse time for millions of Americans who travel to see family or take holiday getaways during the Christmas week.
It was also compounding the misery for some flyers in Europe, where carriers including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic cancelled several US-bound flights on Sunday and were bracing passengers for further disruptions Monday.
The US railway service Amtrak said it was halting service between New York and Boston, and in the process stranded thousands of travelers during one of the heaviest travel seasons of the year.
“Due to the blizzard conditions affecting a good portion of the east coast, and presently affecting the New York and New England areas, Amtrak has canceled (train service) between Boston and New York tonight, December 26th, with no alternate transportation,” the rail carrier said, adding that it regretted the inconvenience to those who would be put out by the cancellations.
Meanwhile, the storm caused more than 1,000 flight cancellations, compounding the national travel chaos.
After record snowfalls last year, Washington and environs appeared likely to escape the worst weather this time around, with just a trace of snowfall expected.
But blizzard warnings were issued from coastal New England to New York City, where the massive storm was expected to dump as much as 20 inches (50 centimeters) of snow, accompanied by powerful wind gusts.
Boston, Massachusetts was forecast to receive up to 22 inches (55 centimeters) of the white stuff by Monday, with wind gusts as high as 72km (45 miles) per hour.
Even Americans in the southern United States were treated to a very rare white Christmas, after light to moderate snow blanketed communities in Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina, while Atlanta, Georgia enjoyed its first white Christmas in 128 years.
Bracing for storm
Ice and snow snarled road traffic in several southeastern states, including Georgia’s northern mountains.
Officials in eastern Canada said they also were bracing for the storm, which was expect to arrive in Nova Scotia sometime today.
The AAA, a membership association for US road travellers, estimated that 92.3 million Americans would travel 80km or more from home during the year-end holidays from Dec 23, 2010 to Jan 2, 2011.
Among those most likely to be inconvenienced are those whose plans included air travel.
Delta Air Lines said earlier yesterday that it cancelled some 850 flights, about one-sixth of its flights around the country.
Continental Airlines cancelled 265 departures, primarily from Newark Liberty International Airport outside New York, and warned that most domestic and international flights would be cancelled through mid-morning today due to the disruption at its main hub.
United Airlines also scotched scores of flights in Boston, Philadelphia and the three main the New York City area airports of Newark, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International.
“We tried to pre-cancel as many flights as we could so customers wouldn’t have to go to the airport only to find that their flight was cancelled,” United spokesman Mike Trevino said.
British Airways said the storm forced the airline to halt most flights to and from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore tomorrow.
“As a result, flights today are subject to delays and possibly cancellations,” the airline said on its website.
Emergency experts were counseling travellers to be patient and for those who were on the road to proceed with utmost care.
“We know many people are traveling for the holidays and we want everyone to be extremely cautious,” North Carolina Emergency Management director Doug Hoell told a local television station.