'Snow Hurricane' Hits East Coast with Blizzard, Rain, High Winds

A foot of snow, 70 mph winds forecast in places. Will you get hit?

February 24, 2010, 1:49 PM

Feb. 25, 2010 — -- No! Please! Enough already! This winter stinks. We need a break!

The eastern United States, already having a rough winter after a string of mild ones, has been warned to be ready for another storm -- and just where it will have the most effect is proving maddeningly difficult for forecasters to predict.

A low-pressure system is slowly heading up the East Coast, mixing with another from the west. It is right on a boundary line for meteorologists. On one side is moist but relatively mild air from the Atlantic. On the other is colder air from the northwest.

The boundary line naturally wanders. A shift of just a few miles could determine whether you get flooding rains -- or a foot or more of snow. And the line is not far from Interstate 95, the major highway that runs along the east coast from Maine to Florida, passing through Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

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"My goodness! This is an incredibly complex system," said John Koch, a forecaster at the National Weather Service in Bohemia, N.Y. "This is not in the official forecast, but I could see a scenario where people just west of New York get a foot and a half of snow, and Greenwich, Conn. -- just five to seven miles away -- could get an inch. It's that close."

For inland areas, heavy snow was all but guaranteed. The forecast for Philadelphia, as of Thursday morning, was for 8-12 inches of snow through Friday. AccuWeather, the private forecasting service, posted a map with the words "paralyzing blizzard" over most of New York state, northern Pennsylvania and northern New England.

"It's going to be a high-impact event that affects the entire Northeast region," said Koch. "Even areas that don't receive a lot of snow are going to receive one to two inches of rain.

"It's not going to be business as usual," he said.

But as for major coastal cities -- New York in particular -- it was still not clear what would likely happen. The government forecast for the New York area was for 7-12 inches of snow on Thursday and into the evening. But there could still be surprises, depending on that boundary line.

"The slightest change in track will have drastic consequences on the forecast," said a weather service statement.

A winter-weather message from the weather service said, "There remains a good deal of uncertainty as to how far west warm air off the Atlantic will get with this next system. This will be a critical factor in determining where the rain snow line sets up. At this time, New York City and points north and west will have the best chance to see significant snowfall. This, though, can very easily change based on the final storm track."

One More Time: Winter Weather Closes in on Northeast

Once again, weather-weary crews got ready to plow streets in one of the most densely-populated sections of the country. Pennsylvania's transportation department said it allocated $180 million for snow removal this winter; it now has $21 million remaining.

Airlines got ready too. Continental, Delta, JetBlue and AirTran and other airlines announced that travelers would be allowed to change their plans without penalty.

In some places wind gusts of up to 70 mph were forecast -- notable, considering that 75 mph winds in summer are considered hurricane-force.

Storms this time of year tend to follow each other. There was widespread snow in the Northeast on Tuesday.

Why such a rough winter? It is a combination of factors, said forecasters. There is an El Nino -- a warm patch of water in the Pacific that adds steamy air to the jet streams blowing over it, generally bringing stormy weather to the American west. Two other periodic patterns -- one called the Arctic Oscillation and the other called the North Atlantic Oscillation -- are both sending colder-than-usual air toward the eastern part of the U.S. from northern latitudes.

"We've been in a cold phase for the North Atlantic Oscillation and the Arctic Oscillation for several months now," said Koch.

ABC's Scott Mayerowitz contributed information for this story. Additional information from The Associated Press.

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