HARRISBURG (AP) – A winter storm descending on Pennsylvania threatened to bring a foot or more of snow to parts of central and eastern parts of the commonwealth Thursday, prompting governmental office and school closures and speed and vehicle restrictions on local interstates.
The National Weather Service predicts 10 to 14 inches of snow for the Lehigh Valley and Berks County in eastern Pennsylvania, 6 to 12 inches in parts of central Pennsylvania and 6 to 10 inches in the Philadelphia area.
State officials said the Capitol complex in Harrisburg would be closed with nonessential workers there and in Philadelphia, Reading and Scranton state office buildings given the day off. The Philadelphia School District and archdiocese of Philadelphia announced that all public and parochial schools are closed. City offices in Philadelphia were also closed with nonessential employees told not to report.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said the speed limit will be 45 mph on many interstates in eastern and central Pennsylvania. In addition, empty straight trucks, large combination vehicles such as tandem trailers and doubles, trailers pulled by passenger vehicles, motorcycles and recreational vehicles were barred from interstates during the storm.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike also imposed a 45 mph speed limit from the Blue Mountain Tunnel to Delaware Bridge exit and on the entire northeast extension. Officials earlier banned empty and double tractor-trailers but later expanded the ban to noncommercial or recreational trailers pulled by passenger vehicles.
The storm threatened widespread problems for commuters and the possibility of more power outages on the heels of last week’s ice storm, especially given high winds that could topple trees and branches onto power lines.
“Snow has become a four-letter word in Delaware County, and all along the East Coast this winter,” said Tom McGarrigle, chairman of the Delaware County Council outside Philadelphia.
The state put 450 National Guardsmen on duty overnight and activated the emergency operations center in Harrisburg.
“I’m really concerned about the power grid in the southeast, given that it’s just been put back up,” said Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency director Glenn Cannon.
Precise predictions about the scope and location of the largest accumulations were hard to come by, but some were saying it would be the Harrisburg area’s biggest storm so far this winter.
“These storms are always tricky, these coastal storms,” said meteorologist Craig Evanego with the National Weather Service in State College. “You get the narrow swath of the heaviest snow, and it’s hard to say where that will happen.”
Numerous municipalities in the projected path imposed special parking and travel restrictions ahead of the storm’s arrival, and schools began to announce closings late Wednesday.
PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Transatt said the highway agency was moving equipment from Erie, one of the nation’s snowiest cities, and other western areas to Lancaster, Reading and the Lehigh Valley.
Waters-Transatt said PennDOT has used 926,000 tons of salt so far this season, compared to 748,000 tons at this point, on average, in recent years.
“Statewide, we do have enough for a handful of more storms,” she said.
Lebanon City Mayor Sherry Capello declared a snow emergency early to give people time to get their vehicles off snow emergency routes. She said the winter season, with some 26 days of snowfall so far, has been tough on her maintenance workers.
“The guys are not getting a break,” Capello said. “It’s like every week and sometimes several times a week they are doing something related to a winter event.”
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said the city’s 43 inches so far is nearly twice a normal year. If this storm is more than 6 inches in the city, it will represent the first time in recorded history that Philadelphia has seen four 6-inch storms in a single season.
“This is highly unusual weather and weather patterns, not just here in Philadelphia, but in talking with other mayors and government officials up and down the East Coast,” Nutter said.
At Cantelmi’s Hardware Store in Bethlehem, manager Tom Marks said he was doing a brisk business in heaters, shovels, snow blowers and just about everything storm-related except ice melt. That item was sold out.
“We should have a load coming next week,” he said. “It’s been delayed because it’s just a high demand right now.”
PECO spokesman Greg Smore said its emergency center never got a chance to shut down from last week’s storm.
“Right now what we’re doing is we are taking our crews out to look at areas where we might have weakened trees where they might be in a weakened state,” Smore said. The utility company also is working to retain out-of-area crews in the expectation of more outages.