Winter storm batters, shuts down region

Maureen Ehret of Lower Makefield Township says she feels lucky to be alive. A tree crushed her car just as she headed out to the vehicle.
Maureen Ehret of Lower Makefield Township says she feels lucky to be alive. A tree crushed her car just as she headed out to the vehicle. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 07, 2014

Following a storm that shut schools and roads, ripped down trees, and transformed Monday's snow piles into blocks of ice, the hundreds of thousands of people without heat or light in the region could be in for a cold wait.

Temperatures might not get past 30 degrees the next two days, locking the bountiful snow and ice into place. Forecasters say more snow is possible on the weekend and again next week.

But whatever else happens, this winter might have a hard time upstaging what meteorologists describe as the rare sequence of events that began with a gentle rain early Monday and culminated with more than 600,000 Peco customers losing power.

It was the company's second-biggest outage figure in records dating to the 1950s, and at one point 87 percent of its Chester County customers were affected.

The storm forced the closing of key sections of the Schuylkill Expressway, and Routes 202 and 322. It forced cancellation of 115 flights at Philadelphia International Airport.

South Jersey was hit less hard, with just more than 60,000 outages reported. In Pennsylvania, however, the storm's nexus of havoc encompassed just about all of Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties, where up to nine inches of snow had fallen Monday.

Gov. Corbett said Wednesday night that he had signed an emergency declaration for the five-county Philadelphia region and Lancaster and York Counties, which were the hardest hit by the ice storm. The declaration allows the state to seek federal aid for the seven counties.

Montgomery County declared a state of emergency, and from 4 a.m. to 3 p.m., the county's Emergency Operations Center fielded more than 4,000 calls for police assistance, said Josh Shapiro, county commissioners chair.

A Narberth physician and father of two was in critical condition after an ice-covered tree branch fell on him about 8:30 a.m. as he helped a neighbor deal with fallen limbs, said Borough Manager Bill Martin. The doctor was taken to the trauma unit at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

"Warming centers" sprouted in the three heavily affected counties, and residents without power were seeking shelter wherever they could find it - in malls, in libraries, in restaurants.

The outages affected hospitals, too, but, unlike most of us, they plan all year for storms like this and have the generators to prove it. They can operate fairly normally on backup power for two to three days before needing to refuel.

Tom Grace, vice president for emergency preparedness for the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, said about 15 hospitals in the region ran on emergency power at some point.

He said that there were no generator failures, but that heat was occasionally an issue.

Most schools never opened, and some made plans to stay closed. Villanova University canceled classes for the rest of the week.

Karen Smallen, 63, a high school art teacher from Lower Makefield, was checking into the Hampton Inn on Stony Hill Road in Lower Makefield on Wednesday morning - even though the hotel was dark, save for the gas fireplace and flickering faux candles on dining tables.

Front office manager Walter Stroud carried in a box filled with cartons of soup for his housekeeping staff. He had picked it up that morning near his home in Northeast Philadelphia, knowing that the staff would be hungry and that nothing would be open in the area. "They're working hard," Stroud said.

Even without electricity, guests came and went. When the lights went out in the morning, the staff handed out flashlights to the 60 or so guests.

By 6 p.m., Yardley's Main Street was dark except for the glow of a single traffic light and headlights from passing cars.

But not all businesses were closed. Candles flickered inside Vault Brewing Co. as a handful of patrons enjoyed beers at the dimly lit bar - owner James Cain said two generators were keeping the refrigerators (and beer) chilled.

Yardley, New Hope, and Doylestown were among the towns where 90 percent of Peco customers lost power, the utility reported.

The outages resulted from freezing rain and rain falling on to snow that had accumulated densely on tree limbs and branches. Those branches then fell on nearby wires.

The quantity and tenacity of the snow on the trees, and the proximity in time of the storms, constituted a rare combination, meteorologists said. The ice that glazed the snow, and the rain that fell into it, added weight and additional stress to already dangerously burdened branches.

Felled trees and downed wires closed as many as 80 state-owned roads in the four suburban counties, said Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman Gene Blaum.

He added that the same storm wreaked a touch of irony.

PennDot crews that salted the roads Tuesday night into the morning had to switch gears at dawn. Instead of working to keep roads open, they were closing them, and removing trees.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Edward Colimore, Carolyn Davis, Ben Finley, Jennifer Lin, Chris Palmer, Tricia L. Nadolny, Stacey Burling, and Maria Panaritis.


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