A burst of profoundly heavy snow, featuring "thundersnow" and flakes resembling waterlogged cotton balls, rapidly covered roads and weighed down tree branches and wires, knocking out power to more than 180,000 customers on Wednesday, just six days after another potent coastal snowstorm left over a million people without power.
Unlike Friday's ambush, this one was accurately predicted well ahead of time. Still, it essentially was a guerrilla operation, with most of the damage done in just a few hours of profoundly heavy, banded snow, the flakes so large – actually aggregations of hundreds or perhaps thousands of ice crystals – they appeared to cast shadows against the sky.
Officially, 6.1 inches landed at Philadelphia International Airport, a record for March 7.
The snow began winding down just after 3 p.m., but for those trying to get home or elsewhere, it must have seemed like trying to run in a dream. Plow trucks were unable to keep up with the suddenness of the snowfall. What accumulated on the roads quickly was churned into a perilous slurry.
Given the strength of the March sun, which is expected to make a reappearance on Thursday when temperatures head to the 40s, most of this mess should be a memory by the afternoon. Utility crews will take all the help they can get at this point.
Along with outages, numerous accidents were reported, particularly in hard-hit Bucks County, where up to 16 inches of snow was reported in Richboro and almost a foot was measured in Lower Makefield. Multiple crashes occurred on Route 1 between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-95, stranding motorists, said county spokesman Chris Edwards. Downed trees were common, and one in Trevose forced SEPTA to suspend service on its West Trenton Line. SEPTA also suspended or detoured numerous bus routes.
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In Delaware County, a private ambulance overturned on Route 1 in Media, but no one was injured, said emergency services director Timothy Boyce.
That county was at the epicenter of Friday's power disaster, and reported over 10,000 more outages Wednesday, Boyce said.
"Trees are down once again, no doubt about it," he said. "How much water can the ground take?"
In all, Peco reported close to 120,000 outages, 87,000 of those in Bucks; PSE&G, 50,000; and Atlantic City Electric, 21,000.
Chad Shafer, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly, said utility customers might have caught a break from a surprising source. The very density of the falling snow, enhanced by the unusual winter thunderstorms, might have impeded the wind, perhaps holding down the number of outages, at least temporarily, he said.
Gale-force gusts had been predicted, but Shafer said winds stayed in the 10 to 20 mph range.
But the sheer water weight of the snow and its tenacious bonding capacity stressed trees, branches, and power lines all over the region.
Actual accumulations varied dramatically, depending on location and topography, but while that 16-inch total in Richboro was an outlier, the water equivalent of that precipitation throughout the region likely amounted to more than a foot of snow.
For all that, it is not quite accurate to say the storm effectively shut down the region. The forecasts took care of that. After Friday's surprise snow assault from a coastal "bomb" cyclone, officials were taking no chances.
Wednesday was a day off for most government workers, but not those who cleared the region's roads, and for hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, but not necessarily their parents.
Take Greg Mester of Philadelphia, who works in information technology. In the morning, he said, his 7-year-old Isabella and 4-year-old Eddie were engaging in normal snow-day activity: "Going crazy." When Mester walked into another room for some quiet so he could respond to emails, Eddie followed him. The child set up all his toy trucks on the table, flipped them all on, and created a chorus of singing and flashing plastic.
"You've just got to laugh and give them a hug and enjoy it for what it is," he said, "because they're going to grow up too soon."
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Up in the hills of Roxborough, among the city's most elevated neighborhoods, it was no day for an outdoor workout. Peter Angeleri, 26, granted a snow day from his job as a bartender near Plymouth Meeting Mall, decided to walk from his apartment to the Andorra Shopping Center to work out at LA Fitness, only to be greeted by a handwritten sign on the door proclaiming the gym closed. He did accomplish one thing.
"I didn't realize I didn't have anything I needed," he said. "Thankfully, Acme was open."
His full shopping basket included milk and eggs. ("Obviously," he laughed.)
Roxborough, where some streets are 450 feet above sea level, reported 7 inches of snow. Height was a key to snow depth on Wednesday, as it often is in March storms. Temperatures decrease with height, and 300 feet can mean a critical degree during a storm such as this one, when temperatures were close to freezing, said Paul Walker, a meteorologist with AccuWeather. In addition, snowflakes would be more likely to land than melt if their earthward journey ended more quickly.
Higher totals were reported along and beyond the "fall line," the subtly rising terrain to the north and west of Center City, where totals of 6 to 10 inches were common.
With two powerful storms in a six-day period, this has become one of the most disrupted weeks in the region's period of record-keeping.
"Things aren't good," said Edwards, the Bucks County spokesman. "These storms were just too close together."
As a public service, we will say nothing further about a storm threat for Sunday into Monday.
Staff writers Michaelle Bond, Andrew Maykuth, Erin McCarthy, Robert Moran, and Anna Orso contributed to this article.