Flights at the Portland International Jetport were canceled, commercial fishing boats raced to shore, and Gov. John Baldacci declared a state of emergency on Sunday hours before the first snowflakes started to fall from what forecasters were describing as a monstrous winter storm.
Baldacci also ordered state government shut down today, sparing hundreds of state workers from what threatened to be a treacherous commute.
The governor, who conferred Sunday afternoon with the Maine Emergency Management Agency, the National Weather Service, and other emergency officials, said the storm is expected to produce heavy snow, high winds and blizzard conditions, including extreme whiteouts, periods of zero visibility, and drifting snow.
“The National Weather Service is warning of extremely dangerous conditions,” the governor said. “The best advice is to avoid all unnecessary travel, to stay off the roads, and allow road crews and emergency responders to do their work.”
The storm, which was producing blizzard-like conditions along the Eastern Seaboard, was wreaking havoc with travel and even with the National Football League Sunday night.
A nationally televised game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings in Philadelphia had to be canceled and moved to Tuesday night because of the storm.
Travel misery began a day earlier in parts of the South, which was hit with a white Christmas for the record books.
Columbia, S.C., had its first significant Christmas snow since weather records were first kept in 1887. Atlanta had just over an inch of snow — the first measurable accumulation on Christmas Day since the 1880s.
Snow started falling in New York City late Sunday morning, by which time nearly 1,000 flights out of the region’s three major airports had already been canceled in anticipation of the storm. More cancellations were expected.
As major airports started to shut down, more and more inbound flights to the Portland International Jetport were canceled. Officials said the storm could not have hit at a worse time: the end of the Christmas weekend.
Jetport Director Paul Bradbury said he expects Portland’s airport to remain open today.
“The problem is going to be the other airports, not us,” Bradbury said. However, Bradbury urged travelers to check on their flights to make sure they had not been canceled or delayed.
Steve Capriola, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, stopped short of calling the storm one of the largest on record, but he did describe it as wide-reaching.
“Each storm is unique in its own way, so it’s hard to say this one is the worst,” he said. “But, this is a pretty good-sized storm.”
A blizzard warning remained in effect throughout Sunday, but Capriola said late Sunday that the storm had not yet produced blizzard conditions. That could change, though, into the morning hours.
A blizzard is defined as a storm that produces sustained or frequent wind gusts of 35 mph or more. Visibility has to be less than one-quarter of a mile and the conditions must persist for more than three hours.
Capriola was projecting between 12 and 18 inches of snow. The storm was expected to bring high winds and gusts of up to 45 mph.
With high winds and heavy snowfall come an increased chance of a power outage.
Central Maine Power Co. spokesman John Carroll said the utility company is as prepared to respond as it will ever be.
CMP beefed up its overnight work crews Sunday and notified workers to report at first light in anticipation of the storm.
“We’ve been watching this storm over the Christmas holiday, and the forecast is for heavy, wet snow and high winds along the coast,” Carroll said. “Line crews, tree crews, mechanics, stock handlers, safety personnel and clerical support are all on notice for an early start (today). We’ll be ready to move people and equipment where and when they’ll be needed.”
All power outages should be reported to CMP’s toll-free outage hotline: 1-800-696-1000.
Unlike a fast-moving snowstorm that caught the city of Portland off guard last week and trapped commuters in rush-hour traffic for hours, the city said it will be ready for this storm.
Portland declared a citywide parking ban on Sunday that went into effect at 10 p.m. The ban ends at 6 a.m. today.
The ban will give the city’s 37 plow trucks the space they need to clear streets and sidewalks. The city is responsible for 566 miles of road and more than 80 miles of sidewalks.
City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said vehicles left on the street will be towed at the owner’s expense to the city impound lot at the Ocean Gateway International Marine Terminal, 40 Commercial St. The impound lot’s telephone number is 774-3025.
Due to high winds, Clegg said the city is asking residents to hold onto their recyclables until next week’s pickup. Residents whose trash collection occurs today were also being asked to wait until Tuesday before placing their trash curbside.
Several towns around Portland announced parking bans, including Gorham, Saco, Brunswick, Scarborough and Westbrook.
Officials warned that an astronomically high tide at 3:13 a.m. today could cause coastal flooding.
“We’re expecting a storm surge with some splashover,” said Chief Rob Childress with the United States Coast Guard station in South Portland.
Childress said that as of Sunday morning there were 29 commercial fishing vessels at sea. Sunday night, all of those vessels had returned to port or were close to shore.
Childress said the Coast Guard is advising against anyone venturing out to sea in this weather. Wave heights at Portland Head Light were expected to reach up to 17 feet.
“We are encouraging boats to stay put or come home,” Childress said.
Baldacci’s spokesman, David Farmer, said the state of emergency declared Sunday is broad-ranging, meaning that the governor could, if necessary, call upon the Maine National Guard to help with evacuations or transporting supplies.
Farmer said the best advice the governor could give: Don’t travel today, unless you have to. The Maine Emergency Management Agency said strong winds and drifting snow, will make for dangerous, potentially life-threatening whiteout conditions.
“The fewer vehicles on the road, the easier it will be for snowplows to operate,” MEMA said in a statement.
Even those folks with travel plans probably won’t be going far today. Amtrak canceled train service from New York to Maine, and from Boston to Portland on Sunday evening, after doing the same earlier for several trains in Virginia. Bus companies also canceled routes up and down the East Coast, affecting thousands of travelers.
Capriola, the meteorologist, said the snow should subside by late morning or early afternoon today.
The weather pattern for tonight and into Tuesday should be a lot quieter, but will bring cold and wind to the state.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.