The first winter storm of 2014, dubbed Hercules by some, hit the area Thursday, and while it didn't pack a punch with the immense strength of the mythical hero, it was enough to leave Williamsport feeling dazed.
Initial snowfall totals for the area were expected to be roughly 2 to 4 inches Thursday afternoon and evening, and an additional 3 to 5 possible through early this morning, according to Paul Head of the National Weather Service in State College.
The snowfall began as flurries in the Williamsport area around noon Thursday and picked up as the late afternoon approached, with an estimated 1 1/2 inches having fallen as of 5 p.m., said Erik Pindrock with AccuWeather in State College.
CHERYL R. CLARKE/Sun-Gazette
A state Department of Transportation truck plows snow on Newtown Hill Road outside of Mansfield Thursday morning. About 3 inches of fluffy snow was on the ground at the time.
The temperature followed suit and fell steadily throughout the day Thursday, approaching numbers in the teens by the late afternoon and hitting single digits overnight. Wind gusts overnight, however, some reaching 20 mph, pinned the wind chill factor solidly below zero.
Today, scattered snow showers should clear out by 8 a.m., although winds may create some areas of blowing snow. Any additional snow accumulation today should be less than half an inch, said Head.
Further north, the snow already had made its presence known by the time the storm reached Williamsport.
In Tioga County, snow started falling on Wednesday, with light snow accumulating about an inch by nightfall. By Thursday morning, about 2 inches had fallen in most areas of the county.
Schools across the Northern Tier region, including Southern Tioga and Wellsboro, were cancelled Thursday, with the exception of Northern Tioga, which called a three-hour early dismissal after opening for classes Thursday, and Galeton School District, which closed at 12:30 p.m.
In spite of the inclement weather, however, the holiday tip-off basketball tournament at Mansfield University still was scheduled to take place today and Saturday.
The extreme temperatures, which are close to record-breaking, are the first of "two shots of cold air," according to Head. It will continue through today, when the temperature will struggle to reach double digits and wind chills could reach nearly ten degrees below zero.
The second one, he added, will come early next week, when Old Man Winter will take a few additional jabs at the area.
Temperatures will improve to the mid-20s on Saturday and could reach all the way into the low 40s on Sunday - but they will fall steadily into Sunday night and could result in a wintry mix of snow and rain.
As temperatures continue to drop into early Monday morning, the precipitation could change over entirely to snow, leading to some light accumulation.
"We might see some squalls, some mini blizzards or whiteouts, on Sunday night and Monday morning," said Head, explaining that those are typically short, but intense, bursts of snowfall.
The frigid temperatures will continue, with a lows below zero expected for Monday night, highs only in the single digits Tuesday, and lows near zero Tuesday night.
The city did its best to prepare for the snow and frigid temperatures.
"We have a full crew of 16 personnel and 14 trucks out," said William C. Wright, general manager of the city Streets and Parks Department.
He said sufficient anti-skid materials and salt were in place Thursday, and that the department had two pickup truck drivers that started clearing alleys once the snowstorm stopped this morning.
The department's priorities were - and still are - clearing the main and bus routes.
"It could be icy," Wright said, noting the extreme temperatures. He was hopeful, however, the sun would help today, but noted the winds could be blowing the fresh-fallen snow around.
He said the storm would require overtime for the workers.
The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency urged people to avoid all unnecessary travel, but that drivers who were out on the roads "have essential items such as food, water and warm clothes ... if travel delays occur." They also warned that the elderly and very young children are the most at risk for hypothermia, and to get to a shelter or friend's house if the power goes out at home for an extended period of time.
The state Department of Transportation was gearing up for the storm as well on Thursday, readying equipment and personnel.
"This is what we call a plowable storm," said Rick Mason of PennDOT. This type of winter storm, according to PennDOT's Winter Services Guide, is one that produces more than 2 inches of snow, and during these storms, PennDOT's primary focus is removing snow from roadways.
In a press release Thursday, the department noted that even though crews would be working around the clock, "roads will not be free of ice and snow while precipitation is falling."
Between Thursday night and this morning, PennDOT plow trucks were passing over the same route every two hours on interstates and expressways, and every two to three hours on other major roadways - their typical schedule for winter storms.
The low temperatures, however, hampered PennDOT's efforts in melting all of the ice and snow that plow trucks leave behind.
"Below a certain temperature, the effectiveness of salt is greatly diminished," said Mason, adding that applying salt and anti-skid materials only goes so far.
He said that PennDOT is keeping a close eye on what the weather will bring on Monday and Tuesday.
"We will do what we always do and deal with it in the best way possible," he said.
Storm arrives as
winter break ends
The storm came just as children were heading back to school from the winter break.
While some county school districts won't resume classes until Monday, those in session Thursday were keeping a close eye on the weather forecast, as it could cause delays and closures today.
When making those decisions, school officials said they not only look at the forecast, but also collect data from the state Department of Transportation, township officials and neighboring school districts.
"We kind of look and compare just to see what everything is," said Richard McCusker, manager of pupil transportation for Williamsport Area School District.
Robert Grantier, Loyalsock Township School District superintendent, added that the location of the school also plays a part. He explained that for those districts in a more rural setting, weather-related closures could be more common because of worse road conditions.
McCusker said he was in contact with districts in Tioga County Thursday to discuss weather conditions in the north.
After collecting all of the data, Mark Stamm, South Williamsport Area School District superintendent, explained that he, along with buildings and grounds and transportation staff discuss whether a closure or delay will occur.
Grantier said he would continue to monitor the weather to make the best decision for student safety.
"(Today) I'll be up at 4 o'clock in the morning looking at the weather," he said.
Both McCusker and Grantier said their districts use ParentLink to notify families of delays, closures and early dismissals. South Williamsport uses a similar tool that allows for phone calls, text messages and emails to inform parents.
What's in store
With so many cold-weather factors hitting the area in the next few days, it's important to know how to keep warm and stay safe, both during and after the storm.
The American Red Cross issued a press release Thursday that included many helpful recommendations. For example, if it is necessary to be outside, dress in layers of lightweight clothing and make sure to wear a hat and gloves.
The Red Cross also cautioned people to be extremely careful when shoveling snow after the storm. Shoveling can be very strenuous physically activity, so it is important to take frequent breaks and to stay well-hydrated. It is also important to wear appropriate, preferably waterproof outdoor clothing - in very low temperatures like the ones expected for the region, any exposed skin can be subject to damage, up to and including frostbite.
If you have outdoor pets, try to bring them inside. If they can't or won't come into the house, be sure to provide some form of shelter to keep them warm, and also make sure that they have access to unfrozen water.
To avoid frozen or burst water pipes, the Red Cross advises running water, even at a trickle, in sinks and showers and leaving kitchen and bathroom cabinets open, to allow warmer air to circulate around the pipes. They also recommend keeping the thermostat at the same temperature both day and night.
The press release also stressed the dangers of using improper heating sources in the home. Don't use a stove or an oven to heat the house, and never use a generator inside the home, even in the basement or the garage. If using a space heater, make sure it is placed on a hard surface and kept at least 3 feet away from anything flammable.
The full press release is available at www.redcross.org.
Sun-Gazette reporters Cheryl Clarke, Mark Maroney and Joseph Stender contributed to this report.