Thanksgiving storm timing 'couldn't be worse,' threatens 2013 travel, flights

November 26, 2013

A major winter storm is threatening the East Coast Tuesday and Wednesday; Chicago is expecting snow as well, and it couldn't come at a worse time as millions of people travel across the country for Thanksgiving.

Rain, snow and freezing conditions could create a travel nightmare. The best advice is to track your flight info before you get to the airport.

Late Tuesday, the snow arrived in La Porte County-- the opening onslaught of what could be a major winter blast.

Earlier at this oasis off the Indiana Toll Road, winds were kicking up and folks gassing up, many leaving early on their Thanksgiving road trips.

ABC7's Eric Horng: "What would have happened you think if you left tomorrow?"
Denise Yates, traveler: "I'd probably be roasting turkey in Chicago."
Horng: "Turn right back around and come back."
Yates: "Exactly. Exactly."

Yates, of Chicago, was in the middle of a 13-hour drive to Philadelphia with her dog Nibbles, hoping to avoid a double whammy of wintry weather-- the snow here and out east.

"I've got to get through that corridor before tomorrow breaks," said Yates.

In La Porte, snow plows and salt trucks were loaded and ready to roll. Crews are gearing up for a busy couple of days with areas expecting up to a foot of snow.

"We've spent the day pre-treating the roads, so we spray them with a brine mixture or a deicer. And the purpose of that is when the storm starts to fall and the ice starts to form, it can give us a bit of an insurance policy before our plows are on the road," said Matt Deitchley, Indiana Dept. of Transportation.

At this hardware store, they're prepping for more than Black Friday.

"Very busy. A lot of customers coming in and out getting snow scrapers, ice melt, snow shovels, a few snow blowers," said John Downs, Kabelin Ace Hardware.

Alex Fernandez wants none of that, which is why he and his wife left early on their trip to Ohio.

"I hate being in it and driving in it. So I am glad that I don't have to deal with it for the next couple days," said Fernandez.
ABC7's Eric Horng: "That's what you're thankful for this year."
Fernandez: "Yeah, that's what I'm thankful for this year. Yeah, exactly."

If you do have to drive through northwest Indiana tomorrow, officials say make sure you have a fully-charged cell phone. And if you do get stuck along the expressway or toll road, it's often best to stay in the vehicle-- don't leave-- and call for help.

Snow and ice are forecast for the northeast part of the country as a deadly storm that started on the West Coast last week gathers steam Tuesday and powers toward the East in time for Thanksgiving.

The National Weather Service warned that the storm would almost certainly upset holiday travel plans for those hoping to visit loved ones in the mid-Atlantic and northeast.

"The timing of the storm couldn't be worse," said Chris Vaccaro, spokesman for the weather service headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. "We are seeing numerous threats as the storm is beginning to develop and intensify."

Vaccaro said heavy rain and high winds would impact travel by air and road in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, and that the weather in that part of the country could have a ripple effect on airports with departing and originating flights elsewhere.

On Tuesday and Wednesday morning, heavy rain and breezy conditions will strike the East Coast from the Carolinas to the northeast, with ice and snow a possibility in the Appalachians, western Pennsylvania and western New York.

The storm system, already blamed for at least 11 deaths, could also spawn an isolated tornado in the Florida Panhandle.

The Southeast, meanwhile, is set to suffer soaking rain in the coming days, primarily in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The large system has already struck parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, but with temperatures creeping above freezing the outcome was less dramatic there than forecasters had feared.

The storm sprung out of the West and has been blamed for at least 11 deaths, half of them in Texas. It limped across Arkansas with a smattering of snow, sleet and freezing rain that didn't meet expectations.

"It's just really cold. We had drizzle but no snow," said Courtney O'Neal-Walden, an owner of the Dairyette diner on U.S. 270 in Mount Ida, Ark. "You can see (ice) on the power lines but the roads are fine."

She said ominous warnings of a wintery storm kept most people inside - although schools remained open - and few stopped by the diner for Monday's $5.99 special of popcorn shrimp, fries and a medium drink.

But the system packed plenty of punch as it moved eastward. John Robinson, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in North Little Rock, said winter storm warnings were issued for parts of the eastern half of the United States through Wednesday afternoon.

Some of the country's busiest airports - New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and Charlotte, N.C. - could see big delays at one of the peak travel times of the year.

This holiday will likely see the most air travelers since 2007, according to Airlines for America, the industry's trade and lobbying group, with the busiest day being Sunday, an estimated 2.56 million passengers. Wednesday is expected to be the second-busiest with 2.42 million passengers.

Ninety percent of travelers this week will drive, according to AAA, and an estimated 38.9 million people - 1.6 percent fewer than last year - are expected to drive 50 miles or more from their home.

In New Jersey, officials advised travelers to check with their airlines and reduce speed on highways as a winter weather advisory was set to take effect shortly before midday across the state's northwest areas.

Meanwhile, forecasters were predicting 5 to 8 inches of snow in Buffalo, more in the northern Adirondacks, and a winter storm watch was posted for central New York state with heavy rain expected in parts of the Hudson Valley.

In the nation's capital, federal agencies opened Tuesday though the National Weather Service issued a winter weather advisory for the northern and western suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, amid forecasts of a light mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain that could be topped off by heavy rain.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which sets leave policies for 300,000 federal workers in Washington, said that while government was open Tuesday, employees could take unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework.

Jeff Smidt hopes to travel from his home in Toronto on Wednesday to visit his family near Boston. He plans to drive if he cannot fly.

"My understanding is that I'm traveling at like the worst time ever," Smidt said. He tried to change his JetBlue reservation to get on an earlier flight but was told the airline wasn't waiving any change fees yet.

"Worst comes to worst, it will be an eight-hour trek down Interstate 90," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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