By Jason Keyser
CHICAGO— Bands of ice, sleet and rain were upending some holiday travel plans as millions of Americans took to the roads, skies and rails Wednesday for Thanksgiving, but the wintry mix was not causing the widespread gridlock that had been feared.
So far, the storms barreling over the mid-Atlantic and Northeast have not sent widespread flight delays or cancellations rippling beyond the region to other parts of the nation's air network, and forecasters said the storm would start to loosen its grip on the East Coast as the day wore on.
"Yes, I'm worried," said Sylvia Faban, an 18-year-old college freshman waiting to launch into the heart of the wintry mess in New York from Chicago, where skies were a clear crystal blue. She and a few travel buddies could do little more than slump down on top of their bags at O'Hare International Airport and wait.
"I'm checking the weather in New York," she said as her fingers pecked at her smartphone.
As of early Wednesday, about 200 flights to, from or within the United States had been canceled, according to the air tracking website FlightAware.com. Most of the scrapped flights were in or out of three major Northeast hubs: Newark Liberty International, Philadelphia International and LaGuardia.
Some of the longest delays were affecting Philadelphia-bound flights, which were being held up at their points of origin for an average of about two hours because of the weather, according to website. The Philadelphia area was under a flood watch with 2-3 inches of rain forecast to fall before colder temperatures turn precipitation to snow.
Roads there were snarled. A multi-vehicle crash closed the westbound lanes of the Schuylkill Expressway — Interstate 76 — in the Philadelphia area after eastbound lanes were closed due to flooding on what is traditionally the year's busiest travel day. One lane was later reopened in both directions.
The storm system that developed in the West over the weekend has been blamed in at least 11 deaths, five of them in Texas. But as the storm moved east it wasn't as bad as feared.
A large area of rain was spreading over the Northeast and was expected to gradually move out into the Atlantic and the Canadian Maritimes as the day wore on. Wind was a concern, especially Wednesday morning in Boston. Parts of southeast New England were under a high-wind warning with the potential for wind gusts of up to 60 mph, said Chris Vaccaro, spokesman for the National Weather Service headquarters in Silver Spring, Md.
There was a residual band of snow behind the storm that, as of Wednesday morning, was stretching from western Pennsylvania to West Virginia and into parts of the southeast. It was expected to pivot into parts of the Mid-Atlantic by Wednesday night.
"This is a fairly typical storm for this time of year," Vaccaro said. "Obviously, it's ill-timed because you have a lot of rain and snowfall in areas where people are trying to move around town or fly or drive out of town ... but fortunately, we're at this point going to start seeing a steady improvement in conditions across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast."
More than 43 million people are to travel over the long holiday weekend, according to AAA. About 39 million of those will be on the roads, while more than 3 million people are expected to filter through airports. The weather could snarl takeoffs and landings at some of the busiest hubs on the East Coast, including New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and Charlotte, N.C.
Transportation officials advised travelers to check with their airlines and reduce speed on highways. Travel experts suggested airline passengers might be able to have penalty fees waived if they wanted to change their bookings because of the weather.
Weather woes aside, there were some things for travelers to be happy about this year. The Federal Aviation Administration last month lifted restrictions on the use of most personal electronic devices during takeoffs and landings, and some airlines, including American, have already begun allowing passengers to stay powered up from gate to gate.
"I'm always down for Wi-Fi," said a jazzed-up Chris Reichert, a 20-year-old film student at Northwestern University who was headed from Chicago to Baltimore.
His excitement was lost in the generational gap with some older passengers such as Phyllis Dolinko, 79, of Highland Park, Ill., who was bound for LaGuardia.
"I have a cellphone (but) I really wouldn't do that anyway," she said of using in-flight services to browse the Web. "That's discourteous," she sniffed.
Her main weather concern was not that she wouldn't be able to make it to New York City to see her family (her flight was listed on time), but rather that high winds on turkey day might prevent the city from sending up giant balloons for the parade.