(CNN) — A strong storm struck much of the eastern United States on Wednesday, complicating holiday travel plans for many of the 43 million Americans who filled the nation’s highways, airports, and train and bus stations.
By the afternoon, delays were reported at several airports in the Northeast.
Heavy winds at all three New York-area airports — LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark-Liberty — resulted in delays of 30 minutes to an hour, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Departure delays from Philadelphia International Airport averaged nearly two hours.
But some people found the experience surprisingly pleasant. Latasha Abney said she arrived more than two hours early at Washington’s Reagan National Airport to catch a flight to New York’s JFK. “I thought the lines were going to be ridiculous,” she said in an e-mail. “I was second in line checking my bag with Delta (checked into my flight last night) and security was a breeze. I walked right up, the TSA agent checked my info and I immediately started the security process. And now the wait begins. It’s pretty quiet by the gates. Not too many people roaming around. So far, so good! Happy Thanksgiving!!!!”
Brian M. Good said he was expecting a horrible trip when he departed New York City for Newark to get a flight to San Diego. “Instead the roads were dead,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s warm outside and it stopped raining. No lines at the airport and flight is on time. Wish the forecasters were wrong all the time :)”
American Airlines’ Kent Powell reported three cancellations, none of them related to the weather.
At US Airways, Todd Lehmacher called the impact of the weather “pretty minimal, at this point,” with six weather-related cancellations and an on-time performance of about 67%. The impact was more pronounced at US Airways Express, which tallied 56 cancellations because of the weather, he said.
“The real story is people are getting to their destinations, albeit a little delayed in some but not all cases,” he said.
At United Airlines, spokeswoman Mary Clark said 15 flights from regional partners had been canceled from the New York area, “but we’ve added extra mainline flights to accommodate the customers.”
Dan Landson of Southwest Airlines cited minor delays in the Northeast in the morning, but predicted they would ease during the day.
Delta Air Lines spokesman Morgan Durrant said 35 Delta Connection flights had been canceled from LaGuardia, but he did not expect that number to rise.
The leader in cancellations was Cape Air, a small regional airline that flies in the Northeast. According to flightstats.com, the airline had canceled 79 flights.
AAA said that 38.9 million Americans were planning to travel more than 50 miles by automobile this year, a decline of 1.6% from last year. The 3.14 million air travelers represented a 3.7% decline from last year, it said.
About 37% of travelers departed Wednesday it said.
Snow blanketed parts of the Midwest, where crews scrambled to clear roads. The storm was blamed for scores of accidents.
Up to a foot of snow fell in parts of Pennsylvania; and it was falling from upstate New York into Canada, where more than a foot was possible. Snow also continued to fly in the central Appalachians and around the Great Lakes as cold air moved in and produced lake-effect snows.
The storm bumped more than 6,000 flights off schedule and forced 271 cancellations Tuesday. Early Wednesday, another 95 flights were canceled.
On Tuesday, low clouds and heavy rain delayed one in three flights — 678 in all — from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the nation’s busiest. On average, passengers were delayed nearly an hour.
Flights at the airport were normal Wednesday, but heavy winds left about 10,000 customers without power, a spokeswoman for Georgia Power told CNN.
“Let’s face it: With 80% of our airplanes touching the congested Northeast, we’re acutely aware that things can go wrong relatively quickly,” JetBlue COO Rob Maruster told CNN affiliate WCBS in New York.
In the South, a tornado struck Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, on Tuesday night before crossing the sound into Morehead City, said Carteret County Emergency Services Director John Ford. The storm tore roofs from houses, uprooted trees and broke windows in buildings. It caused minor damage to a hospital and slightly injured two people, he told CNN.
Amtrak reported no major delays systemwide. It expected to carry about 140,000 passengers, double its normal volume for a Wednesday.
Using the weather as a marketing tool, the nation’s rail system was adding seats on some routes.
“Rail travel remains one of the most reliable and comfortable transportation options, especially in weather conditions that negatively impact other modes,” Amtrak said.
There may be something to that.
“QUIET CAR. Window seat. Polite seatmate. I have hit the Amtrak travel trifecta. #blessed,” Ellie Hall tweeted early Wednesday.
Road conditions were not great in much of the Northeast.
“It’s sleet; it’s rain; it’s 31 degrees. It’s ugly out there,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
A call for anecdotes elicited a number of comments, but no horror stories.
“Well, since the forecast said we would be hitting an ice storm on our way, we ended up leaving the night before we had planned and took an alternate route,” Sarah Martini said in an e-mail. “This morning we took smaller roads to avoid DC traffic and have made great progress! We managed to avoid bad weather and traffic and are getting close to getting to Pittsburgh from NC!”
Wendy, Yulianet and Matthew Deprofio said they left Connecticut at 10 p.m. and reached their destination in Virginia at 5 a.m. “The wind made it really hard for the trucks to stay in their lanes but no accidents during our drive,” they said in an e-mail. “We made it safe and sound. HAPPY THANKSGIVING EVERYONE!”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that 416 motorists died during Thanksgiving weekend last year, that 60% of the dead had not been wearing seat belts and that 42% of the accidents involved a drunken driver.
Last week, 12 people died, most of them in car crashes, when one of the fronts making up the current storm iced roads from the Rockies to Texas and Oklahoma. More than 100 vehicles ended up in wrecks.
“I get on the highway, and the next thing I know I’m spinning,” said Seqret Watson, among the dozens of drivers in Northwest Arkansas sent sliding when their cars hit icy bridges and roads.
“I try to grab my wheel and then I just hit the wall. Just jumped out to make sure my kids were OK,” Watson told affiliate KFSM.
The Peterson family had initially planned to drive from Northern Virginia to Massachusetts. But after seeing the forecast, they booked seats on a flight at the last minute.
“It was a small fortune,” Jennifer Peterson told CNN affiliate WUSA. “We could’ve gone to the Bahamas for what we paid!”
Will winds whip parade balloons?
The forecast left up in the air the fate of the balloons in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. They are to be grounded if sustained winds reach 23 mph or gusts exceed 34 mph — both slightly above predicted strength.
A decision will be made Thursday morning, Macy’s said.
“We came all the way from Puerto Rico to see the parade, so it will be a disappointment if we don’t see the balloons,” said Jose Ramirez, who was in New York with his family.
But there is ample reason to support the caution.
In 1997, a woman spent more than three weeks in a coma after the Cat in the Hat balloon — tossed by heavy winds — struck a pole that hit her. In 2005, two other people were hurt in a similar incident involving the M&Ms balloon.
But officials say that improved weather monitoring devices en route and a police sergeant assigned to each balloon will minimize any danger.
Either way, the parade — with or without the balloons — will go on, organizers say.
CNN’s Jason Carroll, Ben Brumfield, Dave Hennen, Aaron Cooper, Alexandra Field and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.