Rare October snow causes havoc

Heavy snow makes travel tricky for a pedestrian in the Cheltenham Mall parking lot. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
Heavy snow makes travel tricky for a pedestrian in the Cheltenham Mall parking lot. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer) (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 29, 2011

Manayunk tried to throw a Halloween party this afternoon. The only problem was that outside, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

"Can you believe it?" asked the incredulous hostess, Jane Lipton, head of the Manayunk Develolpment Corp., as snow and sleet coated the neighborhood's perilously hilly streets with a slippery sheen of slush.

The organizers had prepared for rain, or even light snow, but not a wintry scene that was borderline hallucinatory.

But the storm did more than ambush Halloween parties. Gov. Christie declared a state of emergency in New Jersey, where 500,000 were without power, Christie among them. PECO Energy said 178,000 customers had lost power, including 75,000 in hard-hit Bucks County.

In terms of the geographic extent of snowfall, for such an early season storm this could end up being "record-breaking," said Walt Drag, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Mount Holly.

For Philadelphia, it was the first measureable snowfall in October in 32 years, and an attack of heavy sleet at mid-day slickened sidewalks and roads even in Center City. A total of 8.5 inches of snow fell during the day in Springtown Bucks County.

A winter-storm warning remains in effect into tonight for Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties, and a winter weather advisory for Philadelphia, Delaware County, and the adjacent Jersey counties.

At Philadelphia International Airport, 85 departing flights were canceled, and incoming flights delayed three hours because of weather issues at other airports.

Scattered power outages were reported, and PECO Energy activated its emergency center in Plymouth Township, Montgomery County.

The SEPTA Paoli line was knocked out of commission by a downed tree in Haverford Township, Delaware County. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which called out over 300 salt trucks, responded to reports of 25 trees fallen on roadways in upper Bucks County, where the wet snow was heaviest.

In New Jersey, flooding closed Route 30 in both directions in Camden, and flooding also was reported on Route 130 in Bordentown, Burlington County.

Elsewhere, traffic crept on major roadways, and numerous accidents were reported throughout the region, including one in Newtown Township, Delaware County, where a car drove off Gradyville Road and caused a significant tie-up.

"It's hard to believe it's October," said Newtown Police Sgt. Robert C. Smith, encapsulating a regional consensus.

The road problems evidently were exacerbated by a period of heavy sleet in that morning and afternoon. Unlike snowflakes that would melt on contact, the ice balls were able to accumulate and to host a layer of snow.

The precipitation let up in the afternoon, but more snow has moved back into the region and was forecast to continue into the night.

With 0.2 inches reported at the airport as of 2 p.m., Philadelphia received its first measureable snowfall in October since 1979, and only the third since the National Weather Service began keeping track in 1884.

Snow has been measured outside the city more recently, but PennDOT spokesman Charles Metzger said he could not recall the last time the agency had sent in the salt trucks in October. "I've never seen it my time," he said.

Aside from the roads, power outages were a growing concern. Given the liquid content of the snow, 4 inches of snow on a tree branch could weigh as much as a foot of dry snow.

Those long-range seasonal outlooks did hint at an early start to wintry weather this year.

But not this early.

The Manayunk event was scheduled to begin with a pumpkin-carving contest at Canal View Park, followed by trick-or-treating along Main Street.

Lipton said she never dreamed that the carving event could be snowed out. "I never believe it's going to be as bad as they say it is," she said. "I get tired of canceling events."

This event did go on, despite the canceled pumpking carving. (It will now be a virtual contest, with participants submitting photos online.)

The Main Street stores that agreed to give out candy to the children carefully placed bales of hay and mums out front.

But only a few showed up on a day better suited for holly and mistletoe.


Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-761-8423 or twood@phillynews.com.

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