24 Jan 2016

Blizzard brings huge snowfalls to eastern United States

6:35 pm on 24 January 2016

A massive snowstorm has brought much of the eastern US to a standstill, affecting some 85 million people.

The blizzard has dumped 102cm of snow in some areas, with 11 states declaring emergencies.

Arlington, Virginia, residents clear snow from their car.

Arlington, Virginia, residents clear snow as a blizzard sweeps over the eastern United States. Photo: AFP

All non-essential travel is banned in New York, with officials believing it could be one of the city's worst snowstorms.

At least 18 deaths - many from traffic accidents - have been blamed on the severe weather since Friday.

In all, 20 states have been affected by the fierce storm.

Snow plough workers battle to clear pavements in New York. Public transport was being suspended and officials asked people to stay indoors.

Snow plough workers battle to clear pavements in New York. Public transport was suspended. Photo: AFP

Tens of thousands of homes are now without power and traffic jams lasting more than 12 hours were reported in Kentucky and Pennsylvania on Saturday.

In rural Virginia - parts of which had more than 76cm of snow - there were more than 1000 car crashes and two people died of hypothermia.

The heaviest unofficial snowfalls recorded by mid-afternoon on Saturday included:

  • 102cm - Berkeley County, West Virginia
  • 90cm - Morgan County, West Virginia
  • 86cm - Washington County, Maryland

In New York, travel restrictions came into effect in the city at at 14:30 (local time), with transport being suspended and bridges shut.

Emergency vehicles and workers carrying out repairs are being allowed to use roads - but those driving non-essential vehicles risk being arrested

Almost all flights into the city have been cancelled.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said up to 28in (71cm) of snow might fall, making it one of the five worst winter storms in the city.

New York's highest previous snowfall, 68.3cm, was recorded in February 2006.

"This is going to be one of those generational events, where your parents talk about how bad it was," said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist with WeatherBell Analytics.

On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, several hundred people have been stranded in vehicles for almost a day.

Among them are close to 250 students from the University of Mary in North Dakota. Monsignor James Shea, president of the university, told the BBC that "spirits are good and no-one is panicking".

New Zealander Lee Hansen lives in Brooklyn on the shores of the East River. She told Sunday Morning she can usually see across the river to Manhattan from her apartment.

"Normally I can see the Chrysler building, the Empire State, the World Trade Center and all I can see is a wall of white at the moment, I can't even see the river. I can see a lot of snow piled up on my balcony."

Ms Hansen said it was not as cold as she had experienced in the past in a New York winter, saying it can get down as low as -20°C.

"It's only about -1°C at the moment but it's that wind coming off the East River ... and the icicles hitting your face that tend to keep you inside at the moment."

Further south in Kentucky, a 56km traffic jam has cleared, after thousands of drivers found themselves stranded overnight on Interstate 75 by heavy snow and a number of accidents.

The Red Cross erected shelters along the highway for those left in the traffic jam.

In other developments:

  • More than 7000 weekend flights have been cancelled in the eastern US, with 4300 on Saturday alone
  • Airports in Washington DC will remain closed on Sunday
  • More than 150,000 properties lost power in North Carolina
  • Another 90,000 people were without power in New Jersey, while high tides have led to some heavy flooding in the south of the state
  • States of emergency have been declared in New York, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia
A pedestrian walks past snow-covered cars on a residential street in Washington, D.C.

A pedestrian walks past snow-covered cars on a residential street in Washington, D.C. Photo: AFP

The US federal government closed down at noon on Friday. President Barack Obama is remaining at the White House.

Residents in the capital and surrounding suburbs in Virginia and Maryland have been warned the snowfall could eclipse the district's record of 28in (71.1cm) that fell during a two-day period in 1922.

Snow piles up in Times Square, New York City.

Snow piles up in Times Square, New York City. Photo: AFP

A worker clears snow from pavement in Times Square, New York City.

A worker clears snow from pavement in Times Square, New York City. Photo: AFP

Skiing in the blizzard: a couple in Rock Creek Park, Washington DC.

Skiing in the blizzard: residents at Rock Creek Park, Washington DC. Photo: AFP

- BBC / RNZ