'Treacherous' LI morning commute expected as snow yields to winds, freeze

With snow falling an inch an hour in some areas of Long Island, reducing visibility to a quarter mile, driving was slow-going Tuesday afternoon -- and the winter storm was only getting started. Videojournalist: Newsday Staff (Jan. 21, 2014)

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The powerful winter storm that paralyzed the region Tuesday had lost considerable steam by early Wednesday but strong wind gusts, freezing temperatures and blowing snow will make the morning commute "treacherous" for drivers.

Much of the storm's predicted 10 to 14 inches of snow had fallen on Long Island by 3 a.m. Wednesday with the National Weather Service reporting that Lindenhurst recorded Suffolk's highest total of 13.3 inches, and Merrick tallying the high for Nassau at 11.1 inches.

A winter storm warning that began at noon Tuesday will remain until 6 a.m. Wednesday.

Tuesday, Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma set a record for Jan. 21 with 9.2 inches of snow, shattering the previous mark of 5 inches set in 2000, said David Stark, a meteorologist at the weather service's Upton office.

Light snow continued to fall across central and eastern Long Island and "a few more inches of snow are possible over the next several hours," according to a message posted on the weather service's New York Facebook page.

But even as the snowfall slowed in many areas, wind gusts of up to 30 mph and high temperatures in the teens will keep road conditions icy into the morning commute, said Joey Picca of the weather service's Upton office. And sustained winds in the 20 to 25 mph range will keep the light, powdery snow blowing across roadways, he said.

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"The blowing and drifting of snow is going to reduce visibility in localized spots, so that will all pose some hazards to the morning commute," Picca said.

For those who stay home to dig out, Wednesday won't provide any relief from the biting cold, he said.

"Folks will wake up to temperatures generally about 10 to 15 degrees, and it's hardly going to go up from there -- it's going to get into the mid- to upper teens for high temperatures tomorrow," he said just before midnight Tuesday.

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Earlier, the winter storm made for a nightmarish trip home Tuesday, when major roads turned into virtual parking lots while the snowfall forced the Long Island Rail Road to reduce service overnight and into Wednesday.

By about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, State Police had responded to a total of 93 car accidents on Long Island since 7 a.m. Tuesday -- a dramatic increase over the usual 10 to 15 crashes per day, police said, though only two of the accidents involved injuries, and both were minor. They also responded to 61 calls about disabled vehicles, police said.

Earlier, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency and urged residents to "avoid travel if possible."

The storm made some major roads, including the Northern State Parkway and Long Island Expressway, barely passable during the evening rush and beyond, with pavement nowhere to be seen at times. Trips on both westbound and eastbound roads that normally take minutes lasted hours -- the result of fast-falling snow and drivers starting for home earlier than usual, clogging the highways.

Just before midnight Tuesday, officials with the state Department of Transportation said there were no plans to close the LIE or state parkways. During the last major snowstorm, on Jan. 2, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered the LIE closed for eight hours overnight.

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The LIRR began running on a weekend schedule as of midnight Tuesday, and fares will be off-peak all of Wednesday, a spokesman said. The LIRR runs about 60 percent of its weekday trains on weekends.

On Wednesday, there will be no train service on the West Hempstead line and the Greenport line east of Ronkonkoma. However, LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena said, unlike the normal weekend schedule, there will be bus service offered on the West Hempstead line and east of Ronkonkoma on the Greenport line.

Snowfall amounts of 10 inches or more can sometimes cover the third rail and interfere with electric power. To avoid that being a problem, service is being reduced to allow for track clearing.

Systemwide delays that were earlier reported on the LIRR had subsided for the most part as of early Wednesday morning, according to the railroad's Twitter feed.

Because of weather-related problems affecting ticket vending machines, the railroad also has waived extra fees to buy tickets onboard trains.

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Altogether, Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International airports had canceled more than 1,700 flights as of mid-evening, according to a Port Authority spokeswoman. As of about 7 p.m., there were 592 cancellations at JFK, 718 at LaGuardia and 461 flights canceled at Newark. Updated flight cancellation information will be available Wednesday morning, Port Authority officials said Tuesday night, but travelers are asked to call their airlines for specific flight information.

Long Island MacArthur Airport canceled all scheduled flights after 3:15 p.m. Tuesday. It was not known Wednesday morning when flights will resume at the airport.

The storm, which began earlier than anticipated, was expected to leave blizzard-like conditions into Wednesday morning with winds gusting up to 35 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

"Treacherous travel continues into the overnight," the weather service said on its Facebook page.

But the snowfall was light and fluffy because of the cold temperatures, so power lines were largely not affected. By midnight Tuesday, PSEG Long Island's website was reporting that no customers were without power.

The state of emergency declared by Cuomo provides state government with the ability to take action across municipal lines without the need for local approval. The declaration also allows the state to take other measures, such as contracting with tow trucks without requiring bidding and other time-consuming purchasing measures.

Wednesday will be the second of several days with temperatures in the 20s or below, caused by a blast of arctic air.

Many of Long Island's public and private colleges and universities closed early Tuesday and will be open on a limited basis Wednesday.

A list of closings and cancellations can be found at newsday.com/closings

With Gary Dymski, Darran Simon, Michael Gormley, David M. Schwartz, Nicole Fuller, Robert Brodsky, Lauren Harrison and Mark Harrington

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