No Rest for Shovelers as Eastern US Digs Out From 'Storm of Century'

Blizzard of '96 stalls commerce, but creates a spirit of community

IN a week when cross-country skis were the most appropriate mode of urban transportation, the Eastern half of the United States struggled to dig out from one of the most headstrong winter storms of the century.

Emergency crews worked to clear roads and provide essential services while millions reveled in a day away from school or work.

The blizzard disrupted travel and commerce from Georgia to Massachusetts but also created an unusual sense of community.

National guardsmen shuttled nurses to work in Humvees in Kentucky. Residents helped push cabs out of thigh-high drifts in New York. Some bus drivers in Boston gave people free rides.

Yet the storm also had its ominous effects. At least two-dozen deaths have been attributed to the weather. Many airports were closed. Governors in most of the snow-drifted states declared states of emergency to try to keep motorists off highways until crews could clear pavement.

In some mid-Atlantic states, the drifting was so bad that public works directors did not expect to get all their streets and roads plowed for several days.

Even the economy may sag under the weight. Economists expect the nation's first quarter gross domestic product could be lower than expected. "We will see a lot of retail sales pretty weak for January," predicts Robert Blake, an economist for Citibank in New York. But, he adds, the snow may just "postpone economic activity," not necessarily eliminate it.

More than anything, the Blizzard of '96 provided a rough-cut collage of a nation, accustomed to motion, frozen in pause.

In Washington, just as federal workers prepared to return from a record-setting furlough, the snow shut down the government anew. The only action on Capitol Hill yesterday involved toboggans.

The day was only cheery for snowplow convoys, four-wheel-drive owners, and the doggedly creative. Ben Roe, a producer at National Public Radio, skiied four miles through the empty streets to the office, passing three cars along the way. One of his colleagues, Mark Goldsmith, thumbed a ride with a group of soldiers on a Humvee.

In Atlanta, 10 hours of rain gave way to two inches of snow, which quickly turned roads to skating rinks. Joe Marino, a graduate student who works in the chemistry department at Atlanta's Emory University, braved the elements in his Honda Accord in an attempt to buy laundry detergent. The 2-mile journey took him 50 minutes.

Near Lexington, Ky., a 12-inch snow carpet made David Greer's jaunt to work at McDonald's a trifle treacherous. After picking up three co-workers in his Ford Explorer, making an extra batch of coffee, and firing up the deep fryer, he had only 10 morning customers. The nearby Toyota plant in Georgetown had closed.

For New Englanders, the storm was the third in as many weeks to drop a foot or more of snow on the region. Mounds of packed snow have peppered parking lots, city street sides, and the bottoms of driveways since mid-December - and the most recent deluge is making mountains out of those snow hills.

"The storms are coming a little too quickly for us to totally replenish," says Boston Public Works Commissioner Joseph Casazza of the city's sand and salt supplies. "But we're coping with this storm fairly well; [the snowfall] came at a rate we could handle."

With virtually no break and no thaw between storms, the city is searching for more places to dump the snow it scrapes off streets. Cars snowed in last month are still buried - and tow truck companies are reaping the benefits.

There may be end up being no respite for the weary. Meteorologists expect another nor'easter to form on Friday.

But Bob Stalker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Brookhaven, N.Y., says it will be only a "run-of-the-mill" storm, dumping another six to seven inches of snow on the drifts.

The latest blizzard dumped anywhere from 18 to 30 inches. It was the result of a complex series of atmospheric events. A low pressure system in the south was whisked up the coast by the jet stream, the upper atmosphere winds.

The storm was fed by the Atlantic's warm waters. As the warm air collided with Arctic air covering the region, it created the snowstorm.

"It doesn't happen that often but when everything comes together like that you get buried," says Alan Dunham, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, Mass.

Although many people took the day off from work, the storm also resulted in a significant number of people trying to work at home. It raised the danger of clogged phone lines - something that happened in the last New England storm.

"Particularly with a blizzard of this size affecting so much of the country, we expect people will be on the phone much, much more," says Beverly Levy, company spokesperson for Southern New England Telephone.

Part of the problem lies in the myriad ways customers use their phone lines today. A quarter of a million new phone lines have been added in Massachusetts alone in the last two years as the use of modems, cellular phones, and services offering more than one number per phone line proliferate.

Phone users are also more likely to be on their phones longer when using them to fax or surf the Internet, jamming up the system further.

The streets of New York were not jammed, as motorists heeded Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's call to stay home. "This is very very serious," the grim-faced mayor said at a press conference on Sunday. New York also shut down its school system, the first closure since 1978. Although the city's subways were running, there were significant mass transit delays. City shelters were filled to capacity as homeless people sought shelter.

The storm shut down all three of the metropolitan areas airports, and many others across the East. It has grounded 380 flights so far along the Eastern corridor from Virginia to Boston for United Airlines. More than 40,000 passengers on United alone had been delayed by noon yesterday.

At LaGuardia Airport, drifts were reported as high as 20 feet. The coastal Long Island area was faced with the drifts and flooding as the storm piled up water in Long Island Sound.

In New Jersey, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman called out the National Guard to help clear the roads. In some counties, there were drifts of up to four feet as wind gusted to 50 miles per hour.

While one coast shivered, another surfed. Southern California enjoyed near record heat - in the 80s.

*Staff writers Christina Nifong in Boston, Alexandra Marks in New York, and Elizabeth Levitan Spaid in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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