As El Niño fades, a reality check for East

With the Eastern seaboard buried in up to 50 inches of snow, the hassles - and havoc - of clearing set in.

The winter of '03: soaring heating bills, everything frozen for weeks, and now, the Presidents' Day Blizzard - a storm so intense that meteorologists are calling it one of the great snowstorms of the Northeast.

Around the White House, the snow blanket is more than a foot deep. But that's nothing compared with neighboring Maryland, where some communities will be digging out for days from some 50 inches of snow. At New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, the measuring stick showed 20 inches of snow as of Monday morning, with another foot of blowing, drifting white stuff on the way. Boston braced itself for the same.

Hey, enough of the big chill.

Actually, despite the snowdrifts and the sight of neighbors dressed up like Eskimos, meteorologists say this winter has not been "exceptionally cold." Rather, it has been "persistently cold."

In fact, the mild winters of recent years may have been influenced by some relatively strong El Niño events - where the waters in the Pacific are warmer than normal. But this winter, El Niño is fading. This may have allowed the weather patterns to return to normal - as in cold.

"This is really a reality check from Mother Nature," says Fred Gadomski, a meteorologist at Penn State at University Park. "The winters in the last five years have been exceptionally mild with a lack of snow - that was extraordinary."

Indeed, a more normal winter means more snow on the ground. Fresh snow, in turn, reflects 90 percent of the heat from the sun back into the atmosphere. This keeps it colder. "That's a piece of the weather quilt," says Mr. Gadomski.

This latest icy chunk of winter arrived when a large mass of cold air settled over New England. With temperatures in the single digits or even below zero, meteorologists watched as a series of low-pressure systems started to suck in moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Then, Monday, it became a coastal storm - an old fashioned nor'easter.

As of Monday noon EST, there were at least 16 reported deaths attributed to the storm.

Even before this storm, the winter weather had been wreaking havoc with state and city budgets. Indianapolis had already burned through two-thirds of its snow-removal budget as of Monday. Many East Coast communities had used up all their funds to keep salt on their frozen roads. Now, they are eating into emergency funds.

Not removing the snow, however, can have a political side effect. That may be why Washington Mayor Anthony Williams cut short a family vacation in Puerto Rico. At first, a spokesman said it was important that even mayors take family vacations. Then, the mayor issued a statement that he had complete confidence in the city's snow-removal operation.

But the politics of snow removal (that has sunk the careers of previous mayors in Chicago and Washington) kicked in. On Sunday, as the storm was mounting, he took a flight to Newark, N.J., then caught a train back to Washington (where airports were closed.)

"He's smart enough to know that you get on a plane and get back here," says Joe "the Black Eagle" Madison, Washington's top talk-show host.

In New York, the city tried to keep emergency roads open with 350 salt trucks and more than 1,500 snowplows.

Still, by Monday, the army of plows was struggling just to keep the main avenues cleared, leaving many side streets blanketed with more than a foot of flakes.

In some places it was much worse. On the corner East 84th Street and East End Avenue, the wind whipping off the East River created waist-high drifts that covered parked cars. But Rudy Polenko, who drives a truck for New England Meats, didn't see the trouble ahead when he turned off from York Avenue. He cruised cautiously to the end of the street before being confronted by a marooned van that had run into the frozen white wall that covered the corner.

"This is bad, very bad," he said, hoisting a shovel a resident had lent him.

A maintenance man from the apartment building next door was revving up his snowblower to help dig out the stranded vehicles.

"There's more neighborliness," says Joan Dunn of East 84th Street who was walking her Great Dane Mollie. "It's kind of fun. People are cheerier. They come out on the block to shovel. I almost like shoveling."

This storm is the worst in the city since one in 1996, when the city was closed to all but emergency vehicles for two days.

After this storm passes, it might not be summer, but meteorologist Gadomski says it will definitely warm up - perhaps into the 40s. Unfortunately, this may mean the Northeast gets a big rainstorm by the weekend.

"The next problem may be a massive slush and meltdown with urban flooding," he says. "After that we will have some substantial cold. There is no clear light at the end of the tunnel we call the winter of 2003."

Gail Russell Chaddock in Washington and Alexandra Marks in New York contributed to this report.

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