BY JOHN J. HOPKINS
Medina Journal-Register — Winter’s first major snowfall was expected to taper off into flurries this morning, but not until after drivers throughout Orleans County had a tricky morning commute.
Forecasters at the National Weather Service expected the storm to blanket the county with a dumping of between 6-10 inches of the white stuff, with most of the accumulation expected to have taken place overnight.
“The worst is going to be overnight,” Jon Hitchcock, a meteorologist with the Buffalo office of the weather service, said Wednesday afternoon. “The bulk will fall between about 7 p.m. and 4 a.m. By daybreak, the worst will be over.”
A winter storm warning was expected to remain in effect until 1 p.m. today.
Unlike lake effect storms that typically target areas south of Buffalo, this storm is part of a general weather system and was expected to affect all of Western New York.
According to the weather service, heavy snow was expected to spread northward with snowfall increasing rapidly from south to north, with snowfall rates exceeding one inch per hour.
Increasing winds of 15-25 miles per hour with gusts up to 35 mph were expected along the Lake Ontario and Lake Erie shorelines. The combination of heavy snow and strong winds were expected to create very low visibilities overnight.
Residents throughout the region were advised not to travel unless it was absolutely necessary.
The storm was also expected to drop on the region the largest snowfall total in more than a year. The last time the Buffalo office recorded more than half a foot of snow in one day was in March 2011, and there hasn’t been a double-digit snowfall since December 2008.
The storm is the same system that dumped and blew hefty snowfalls in Oklahoma, Texas and the Ohio Valley, disrupting holiday travel, knocking out power to thousands of homes and responsible for at least six deaths.
Hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed, scores of motorists got stuck on icy roads or slid into drifts, and blizzard warnings were issued amid snowy gusts of 30 mph that blanketed roads and windshields, at times causing whiteout conditions.
Erie County, Pa. was under a blizzard warning on Wednesday.
“The winds are going to be stronger the farther southwest you go,” explained Hitchcock. “Here, we’re expecting winds of 20-30 mies per hour and stronger gusts but it’s not enough to create blizzard conditions.
The system, which spawned Gulf Coast region tornadoes on Christmas Day, pushed through the Upper Ohio Valley and headed toward the Northeast. Forecasts called for 12 to 18 inches of snow from Western New York into Maine. The storm left freezing temperatures in its aftermath, and forecasters also said parts of the Southeast from Virginia to Florida would see severe thunderstorms.
Schools on break and workers taking holiday vacations meant that many people could avoid messy commutes, but those who had to travel were implored to avoid it. Snow was blamed for scores of vehicle accidents as far east as Maryland, and about two dozen counties in Indiana and Ohio issued snow emergency travel alerts, urging people to go out on the roads only if necessary.
Some 40 vehicles got bogged down trying to make it up a slick hill in central Indiana, and four state snowplows slid off roads as snow fell at the rate of 3 inches an hour in some places.
Two passengers in a car on a sleet-slickened Arkansas highway were killed Wednesday in a head-on collision, and two people, including a 76-year-old Milwaukee woman, were killed Tuesday on Oklahoma highways. Deaths from wind-toppled trees were reported in Texas and Louisiana.
More than 1,200 flights were canceled by midday, according to FlightAware.com. Delays of more than an hour were reported Wednesday at the three New York City-area airports, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
In Arkansas, some of the nearly 200,000 people who lost power could be without it for as long as a week because of snapped poles and wires after ice and 10 inches of snow coated power lines, said the state’s largest utility, Entergy Arkansas. Gov. Mike Beebe sent out National Guard teams, and Humvees transported medical workers and patients.
As the storm moved east, New England state highway departments were treating roads and getting ready to mobilize with snowfall forecasts of a foot or more.The Associated Press contributed to this story.