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Snowstorm size a big surprise for Long Islanders

Unexpected strength of the storm caught many by surprise, snarling traffic and delaying rail service just as commuters headed home Thursday night.

Earlier forecasts of mostly rain to a coating of snow across Long Island belied what awaited those who ventured out Thursday night, with thick, icy snow covering roadways, and strong gusts making temperatures in the low 30s feel more like the low 20s. (Credit: Newsday / Shelby Knowles; Howard Schnapp)

This story was reported by Denise Bonilla, Robert Brodsky, Vera Chinese, Zachary R. Dowdy, Mark Harrington, Patricia Kitchen, Carl MacGowan, Rachel Uda and Ellen Yan

It was written by Bonilla and Uda.

Predictions of freezing rain or light snow across Long Island on Thursday belied what awaited those who ventured out into the afternoon.

Heavy, wet snow greeted commuters, creating nightmarish road conditions, and bone-chilling gusts making it feel less like mid-November and more like late January.

The storm’s surprising pre-winter punch landed just as the evening rush hour got going.

By 6 p.m., the commute to and from Long Island had slowed to a crawl. Motorists on the Long Island Expressway could only wait in miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic while major bridges and tunnels in the region abruptly  shutdown, stranding drivers for hours.

For Long Island Rail Road commuters, their luck was no better. The LIRR said it experienced delays averaging 20 minutes in both directions between Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica due to weather-related signal trouble. 

Service between Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica was briefly suspended in both directions at about 7 p.m. Westbound service between Jamaica and Penn Station was also suspended at about 5:30 p.m. and restored about an hour later, the LIRR said.

“We were told this was going to be a dusting but yet another storm that the meteorologists got wrong,” said GwenMegan Flores, a special-education teacher in Douglaston, adding that it took her two hours to get home to East Meadow.

In Upton, National Weather Service meteorologists rushed to update the forecast after earlier predictions of a relatively benign mix of rain and snow quickly became outdated.

The unexpected onslaught of more snow and less rain in the afternoon came as a result of changing computer models that indicated slightly colder temperatures just as more precipitation developed, said Joe Pollina, National Weather Service meteorologist.

As hard and unwelcome as a snowstorm a week before Thanksgiving was Thursday, the news was not all bad. Better weather is on the way — at least judging by the latest forecasts.

Friday is predicted to start out with wind and rain before the sun starts peaking through the clouds after about 10 a.m. By the afternoon, the strong gusts are expected to make way for dry, breezy and partly cloudy conditions with a high across Long Island in the mid 40s.

The powerful gusts Thursday led to downed trees and power lines. Just before 11 p.m., PSEG Long Island had 378 electricity outages impacting 9,210 customers, mostly in Nassau and western Suffolk counties. The snow led to numerous school delays and cancellations across Long Island and the cancellation of other events, including a 7 p.m. lecture and discussion in Elmont about the Nassau County jail.

Late Thursday night, Manhasset had recorded 6.5 inches of snow,  the most for Nassau. In Suffolk, North Babylon notched the most snow with 5.3 inches, according the weather service.

It all caught Brookhaven Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro by surprise. Losquadro said he asked for help and the town Parks Department answered with plows. Crews were working at least three hours of overtime as snow continued to fall long after it was supposed to turn to rain.

“This very quickly became a snowplow operation, and not just a salt-and-sand operation,” Losquadro said. “With an unanticipated storm such as this, when you have plows out during rush hour, it’s difficult. …We’re working around the cars on the road.”

Losquadro said he had enough salt and sand on hand before the storm but crews were dealing with trees felled by heavy, wet snow and storm drains choked by soggy leaves.

“We always make sure we have a significant supply on hand in advance of the season,” he said of the salt and sand. “The supply wasn’t a problem. It was just having a very unanticipated situation.”

In Babylon Town, Department of Public Works Commissioner Tom Stay said he, too, was shocked by the heavy snow. 

"All the forecasts kept saying "rain, rain, maybe a dusting" so I definitely was not expecting what we got," Stay said. "Obviously we do know this time of year you've got to be ready, but it was definitely surprising."

Stay said salt trucks and plows encountered a "worst case scenario as far as timing."

"When you get that heavy snow during rush hour, all the roads were packed with cars," he said. "I hear them over the radio saying we're stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, we can't even salt or plow because there's cars all over the place."

Kathy Whitehurst, a nurse in Lake Success, said it took 45 minutes to get out of her office parking lot and another two hours to get home to East Meadow.

“It’s outrageous and the quality of life on Long Island keeps going down,” she said. “I saw zero storm preparation.”

At the Sheraton's Four Points hotel in Plainview, Walter Guven and wife Kelley Guven had arrived for a friend's wedding  Saturday and could not believe they had just survived driving about 10 miles in 90 minutes.

"From Lindenhurst! Lindenhurst!"  Walter Guven said with disbelief over what normally would be about a 15-minute drive. "It's absolutely bananas."

Their GPS had directed them all over side roads because the main ones were clogged and their car slid in the slush.

Further east, by nighttime the wintry mix became cold, heavy rain in Southampton, which along with the rest of the South Fork, as predicted, largely avoided the snow. But pooling water on roads made for a slippery evening commute across the East End.

The keynote speaker for the scheduled Nassau jail discussion,  a scholar at the Vera Institute criminal justice think tank, could not make it in from Manhattan. And area residents stayed home while organizers navigated treacherous roads to make it to the event at Elmont Memorial Library.

“I left Manhasset at a quarter after four and didn’t get here until 6 o’clock,” said Claire Deroche, social justice coordinator for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, a sponsor of the event hosted by Nassau County Jail Advocates. “There was a lot of traffic. It was bumper to bumper all the way.”

Snow-vember

  • 1/2 inch: Normal snowfall for the month.
  • 7.6 inches: Amount that fell on Thanksgiving 1989 at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma.
  • Oct. 29, 2011: The earliest the airport has seen any measurable snow.
  • Nov. 2, 2012: The earliest an inch or more has fallen (1.7 inches).
  • Dec. 24: Average date to see the first inch of snow, going back to September 1963.

Sources: National Weather Service; Northeast Regional Climate Center, based at Cornell University

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