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Philly region experiences its first major snowstorm in 1,000 days

The entire mess should be solidly frozen Thursday morning as temperatures drop into the 20s. The winter storm warning for the area is in effect until 10 a.m.

Snow covers the 2500 block of North 17th Street, just above Cumberland Street, on Thursday morning.
Snow covers the 2500 block of North 17th Street, just above Cumberland Street, on Thursday morning.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

The forecasts came with caveats and cautions to rival a prescription-drug commercial, but near whiteout conditions and up to nearly 10 inches of snow reported as of Wednesday evening affirmed that they correctly foresaw that the region would experience its first major winter storm in 1,000 days.

Officially, 6.3 inches was measured at Philadelphia International Airport, and while the final totals in the region fell short of projections earlier in the week, that 6.6 would be 22 times what fell all of last winter in Philadelphia. Amounts of 5 to 8 inches were common on both sides of the river, with 9.6 measured in Elverson, Chester County.

Sleet and some freezing rain fell through the night, and the entire mess was solidly frozen Thursday morning as temperatures dropped into the 20s. Highs won’t get much past freezing.

It the Jersey Shore, where gale-force winds gusted to 50 mph on Wednesday, a coastal flood warning was in effect for Thursday morning. But after heavy rains, the coastal towns at least won’t have to deal with snow removal.

Befitting for these strange times, this was a rather peculiar storm with its share of surprises. And perhaps one surprise was that it wasn’t horribly disruptive, likely a COVID-19 byproduct. SEPTA reported some canceled trains and rerouted bus routes, but it has had rougher days.

The city postponed trash collection until Friday, but that was mainly because sanitation trucks were needed for snow duty.

On the mainland, steady snow crept into the region during the early afternoon Wednesday and rather quickly intensified, with snow falling heavily late in the day. Visibilities at the airport dropped to a quarter-mile, which is blizzard level.

However, the sleet line approached Philadelphia around 5 p.m., a bit ahead of schedule, said Jonathan O’Brien, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, and the changeover ended the snow blitz.

The storm center passed south of Philadelphia, and as it did the onshore winds that were part of its counterclockwise circulation drew in warm ocean air, about a mile up in the atmosphere, and 2,000 feet deep, said Dave Dombek, senior meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. As snow fell into the warm air, it melted, and refroze as sleet as it reentered the colder air.

Snow was piling up at 1 to 2 inches an hour; but it might take three hours for sleet to accumulate an inch.

No, the forecasts were not perfect, Dombek acknowledged, but meteorologists will never beat the actual weather. “The best you could hope for is a tie,” he said. “If it’s a perfect forecast it’s a tie.”

Just to the west in central Pennsylvania, away from the changeover line, amounts up to 22 inches were reported, with 41 in Binghamton, N.Y.

» READ MORE: Feds’ updated winter forecast favors warmth here and in most of the nation, especially December

» READ MORE: Snow shocked Philadelphia in December 1960. The forecast whiffs these days tend to be quite different.

Local shopping complexes — the Deptford, Exton Square, Neshaminy, Plymouth Meeting, and Oxford Valley Malls — announced early closings. But for all the snow and wintry precipitation around here, most of the traditional storm disruptions were noticeably closed, a byproduct of the unwanted restrictions already imposed by the pandemic.

Schools were shut or dismissed early, but many children are learning by laptop anyway these days.

Motor-vehicle traffic evidently was blessedly sparse, said Brad Rudolph, spokesperson for PennDot’s Philadelphia region. And fears that the storm would interfere with COVID-19 vaccine deliveries proved unfounded, according to Randy Padfield, PEMA’s director, who said doses had arrived at hospitals in the morning before the snow started.

No major SEPTA issues were reported, but the agency said it would keep the Broad Street and Market-Frankford subway lines running all night.

» READ MORE: Much has changed in 2020. The magic and mystery of snow persist.

The storm likely will hit local budgets already strained due to the coronavirus pandemic. In Philadelphia, budget officials warned last month that the city’s reserve funding could be wiped out in just a few days in an emergency such as a snowstorm. “We don’t know, obviously, the cost of this storm yet,” said Finance Director Rob Dubow. “It’s something we’ll figure out after the snow has settled.”

» READ MORE: Biggest snow of the season … so why wasn't it more disruptive?

This was Philadelphia’s first snowfall of 5 inches or better since March 2018, and the region hadn’t experienced an inch since March 2019.

Everyone might have been a bit out of practice, but panic shoppers evidently were shaking off the rust. At the Acme in West Philadelphia, customers were stocking up on cereal, eggs, and other vital supplies.

People like Della Langan. As the snow was falling, she bravely walked a few blocks from her home to pick up oatmeal cranberry cookies.

”You gotta have cookies for the storm!” she said.

And who says the snow day is dead?

Not John A. Toleno, the Upper Merion Area School District superintendent. On Wednesday night, he announced: “There will be absolutely NO virtual learning or teaching Thursday, Dec. 17 due to the snow storm. You have all earned this day off so enjoy the snow and enjoy the time away from the computers!”

Contributing to this article were staff writers Julie Coleman, Laura McCrystal, Patricia Madej, Diane Mastrull, and Robert Moran.