Storm to threaten holiday travel, moving east

KELLY P. KISSEL, Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A winter storm that hit parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas was expected to be worse, but with temperatures creeping above freezing the outcome was less dramatic than forecasters had feared.

Still, the severe weather could ramp back up Tuesday as it sweeps toward the East Coast, where it is poised to threaten plans for those traveling during a long holiday weekend.

“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.”

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She said ominous warnings of a winter storm kept most people in — though schools remained open — and few stopped by the diner for Monday’s $5.99 special of popcorn shrimp, fries and a medium drink.

“Business was horrible today,” said Walden, who closed the business four hours early and pledged to try again Tuesday with a different special: two burgers, two fries and two drinks for $9.99.

The storm started in the West and as of Monday was 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.

John Robinson, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in North Little Rock, said the storm arrived in Arkansas a bit later than expected Monday — after sunrise — and that temperatures were able to creep up a bit.

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“In many places that made a lot of difference,” Robinson said.

As the storm continues east, forecasters say heavy rains and strong winds could impact airports up and down the coast, while inland areas could see a half-foot of snow or more.

“Some of those amounts could be very substantial,” Robinson said. “Closer to the coast, there will be a big rain spell, I’m afraid … from central North Carolina up into Maine: 2 to 5 inches.”

He said the storm is expected to generate a band of snow west of the Appalachians on Tuesday and freezing rain from North Carolina and Tennessee into central and eastern Pennsylvania. From Tuesday night into Wednesday, the snow will spread from the Great Smoky Mountains to the eastern Great Lakes.

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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.

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.

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.

Associated Press writers Scott Mayerowitz in New York City; John Raby in Charleston, W.Va.; and Diana Heidgerd and David Warren in Dallas contributed to this report.