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AIR Worldwide : cleanup of fierce Northeast winter storm begins

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According to catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide, from New York 500 miles north to Maine and then into Canada, the fierce February 8-9 winter snow storm brought deep snow, high gusting winds, and significant storm surge along the New England coast. An estimated 40 million people have been affected and as of early Monday, there were no reports of substantial structural damage.

“The storm developed late Thursday and in the early hours of Friday when a strong coastal disturbance that had developed along the Delmarva Peninsula moved from over the Atlantic and interacted with an upper-level trough that had been bringing widespread snowfall from the Great Lakes across upstate New York,” said Dr. Tim Doggett, principal scientist at AIR Worldwide. “As the two systems approached each other, the energy from the Great Lakes system came into phase with the coastal low pressure system—and the coastal storm rapidly intensified and tracked northeastward, reaching the southern Massachusetts coast Friday night. As the strengthened storm tracked into the Canadian Maritimes, it impacted the entire U.S. eastern seaboard from New York City to Portland, Maine, while also bringing heavy snow and gusty winds inland across Connecticut and Rhode Island and into western Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and interior Maine.”

According to AIR, at its most intense, the winter storm produced snowfall at a rate of three to four inches per hour in bands across southern New England. Central Connecticut experienced intense snowfall characterized by imbedded thunderstorms that lasted for several hours Friday night, additionally increasing the snow totals in that region. The town of Hamden, Connecticut, received 40 inches of snow, the highest so far reported by the National Weather Service. Cold air driven southward in advance of the storm system resulted in lighter, more powdery snow that drifted in the high winds. Overall, the storm deposited between one and three feet of snow in its wake across the whole region.

Dr. Doggett observed, “In coastal areas, strong winds knocked out power and caused significant tidal surge. Wind gusts of 83 miles per hour were recorded at Falmouth, Massachusetts, while storm surge impacted many coastal communities from Cape Cod north to New Hampshire. The impact of the surge was heightened by the fact that it coincided with the monthly astronomical high tides that occurred late Friday night and again Saturday morning.”

Although many news reports have referred to the Friday-Saturday storm as a blizzard, according to the strict meteorological definition of a blizzard, it may not have met those official criteria. A blizzard, officially, is a severe snowstorm that is characterized by strong sustained winds of at least 35 mph that last for a prolonged period of time—typically three hours or more. Such sustained winds produce a visibility of less than a quarter mile (.25 miles) for their duration. Despite the high wind gusts and significant snowfall, those meteorological criteria of sustained duration (and low visibility) may not have been met.

At the height of the storm more than 650,000 customers had lost power throughout the area, mostly in southeastern Massachusetts and on Cape Cod, in Rhode Island, and on the eastern Connecticut shore. In particular, flooding caused extensive damage to the electrical power infrastructure along the southern Massachusetts coast. Five states declared states of emergency—Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island—and President Obama declared a federal state of emergency for Connecticut as well. In Massachusetts, Governor Duval Patrick declared a ban on all road traffic as of 4:00 pm EST Friday, except for emergency vehicles and snow plows. The ban, while controversial, is being credited for keeping down the number of fatalities from road accidents.

According to AIR, with the impacted area receiving rain today, Monday, and with temperatures expected to fall below freezing by nightfall, the snow will absorb the water and the added weight on snow-covered roofs will increase, as also on trees and other structures that could collapse and cause damage.

Dr. Doggett concluded, “Several mitigating factors have limited damage so far: the region was not already covered by earlier snow when the storm arrived (had there been antecedent snow, impacts would have been greater); the snow brought by the storm was of a relatively low density (light and fluffy) in much of the region, thereby minimizing the weight of the snow pack; and while some notable wind gusts were observed, the sustained winds were not quite as strong as they were forecast to be—and thus snow drifting and tree damage were lessened. Finally, today’s rain notwithstanding, temperatures for the next couple days will be above freezing, so homes that remain without power are less likely to experience frozen pipes, which would be a high possibility at this time of year.”