/Winter storm to hit millions of travelers returning from Thanksgiving trips

Winter storm to hit millions of travelers returning from Thanksgiving trips

The millions of U.S. travelers who battled a nightmarish mix of winter weather en route to their Thanksgiving holiday destinations can expect more of the same for the trip home as a coast-to-coast winter storm system brings snow, rain and heavy winds to major travel hubs across the country, weather experts say.

The storm, which originated on the West Coast, was headed to the upper Midwest and Northeast, with Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and New York expected to experience the worst of the wintry precipitation early Sunday — just as the return leg of the busiest travel holiday of the year hits its peak. This year, AAA estimated a near-record 55 million people hit the road, rails and skies for the holiday travel period it defines as the five days from Wednesday to Sunday.

“The amount of the population under a warning, advisory or watch is extensive — it’s in the millions,” said Meteorologist Brian Hurley at the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center. Hurley called the expanse of the storm “impressive”: What started as a deep cyclone off the West Coast has become a “coast-to-coast storm.”

As of Saturday afternoon, travel delays were reported at airports in San Francisco, Newark and Chicago, according to the airport tracking site Flightview. Several major airlines including Delta and American Airlines are waiving flight-change fees for passengers likely to be stranded by the storms.

In the central United States, weather-related delays were hampering post-Thanksgiving travel plans by Friday: Officials in Rapid City, S.D., issued a no-travel advisory, while Utah Highway Patrol troopers reported a “huge smattering” of wrecks across the state beginning Friday afternoon, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. In Duluth, Minn., a no-travel advisory was issued for those planning trips to stay in place until at least midday Sunday.

The heaviest of the anticipated winter weather, including snow or ice, will generally be north of Interstate 80, which stretches east and west in the upper third of the country, while the heaviest snow accumulation will be the eight to 16 inches that could fall on portions of Minnesota, the northern two-thirds of Wisconsin and upper Michigan, Hurley said.

For travelers in the Chicago area, home to the busiest airport in the United States, wind will be the main concern.

“We’re not forecasting a lot of snow for Chicago,” Hurley said. “But air travel gets complicated when you have a wide array of precipitation and issues with visibility.”

As the storm system moves eastward, Pennsylvania, much of New York state and New England are forecast to see snow accumulation by early Sunday near the north-south I-95 corridor toward Massachusetts, Hurley said. New York City and Boston could see up to four inches of snow, with a scant inch forecast for Philadelphia.

“Airports along the coast will be looking at lower visibility, and that will make for tougher travel coming out of the Northeast,” Hurley added.

Road travelers were urged to be careful, as driving conditions become dangerous amid the mix of snow, rain, ice and poor visibility. About 46 percent of all crashes involving bad weather take place in the winter, AAA spokeswoman Jeanette Casselano told The Washington Post via email.

“Snow and sleet can cause significant safety problems by reducing visibility and making it difficult to safely maneuver or stop, but by being vigilant behind the wheel, motorists can help to reduce the number of crashes and fatalities,” Casselano said. The travel group’s research found fatal crashes peak during the first snowfall of the year.

The West Coast isn’t being spared from inclement weather: Another storm system hanging off the coast of California is forecast to bring heavy rains in Northern California, especially in the mountains and foothills of San Francisco, Oakland and across the Sierra, Hurley said. An expected three to five inches of rain could also cause flooding in “burn scarred” areas that were scorched by recent wildfires. In those spots, the land does not absorb water as quickly as normal.

On Saturday, some areas were still digging out or drying off from storms that hit in the lead-up to Thanksgiving.

Weather caused at least one planeload of passengers to miss Thanksgiving altogether when a United Airlines flight bound for Denver was rerouted early Thursday and was unable to take off again.

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