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Record-setting storm buries Pennsylvania city under more than 4 feet of snow

A map of snow accumulation near Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The Washington Post

Lake-effect snow buried Pennsylvania's fourth largest city under more than four feet of snow over Christmas, smashing both local and state snowfall records while hampering holiday travel around the Great Lakes.

With snow falling at a rate of up to three inches per hour, the National Weather Service reported Erie, Pennsylvania, picked up at least 58 inches of snow since the storm began on Christmas Eve. The bulk of that fell in a 30-hour period from Christmas morning into Tuesday.

Erie officials have declared a state of emergency and are pleading with motorists to stay off city streets and nearby highways, including Interstates 90 and 79. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, D, was also expected to call up some national guardsmen because so much snow has fallen there is concern ambulances will not able to reach some patients.

"They don't have vehicles high enough, so we are currently working with the national guard to be able to deploy Humvee ambulances to assist them," said Richard Flinn, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Emergency Management. "We will also provide the state police with Humvees in case they need it."

According to the National Weather Service, Erie received 34 inches on Christmas Day, easily topping its previous 24-hour snowfall record. After another 24 inches piled up from midnight through 5 p.m. Tuesday, the National Weather Service said Erie had broken Pennsylvania's previous all-time two-day state snowfall record, set in 1958 when Morgantown received 44 inches.

An additional one foot to two feet of snow could fall across Erie through Wednesday.

So far, Erie has received 97 inches of snow in December, making it the snowiest month in the city's history. The city averages about 100 inches of snow in an entire season.

Located along Lake Erie nearly midway between Buffalo and Cleveland - which the storm has largely spared, so far - Erie's 99,000 residents are used to heavy snow and brutal winds. In late fall and early winter, cold air pours over the relatively warm lake waters, picking up moisture and depositing it downwind as snow.

But the heaviest snow usually falls away from the immediate lakeshore, where higher elevation helps to squeeze out the most moisture. It's also relatively rare for the most intense snow bands to remain parked over one area for an extended period.

This time, the snow band stalled along the shoreline, clogging streets in Erie with mounds of snow. At times on Christmas, parts of Erie were receiving one inch of snow every 15 minutes, according to accounts on social media.

In an interview, Erie Mayor Joseph Sinnott, D, said the snow is so deep cars have been "bottoming out" in it.

"The last two decades we haven't had as much snow as we used to have in the 70s," Sinnott said. "Although we have had snow, not like this, so people are not used to it. . . . We managed to keep the main streets as clear as possible, but the side streets are very deep, and even the SUVs are having trouble."

Despite whiteout conditions at times, travel around Erie was complicated by residents who tried to press ahead with their Christmas plans.

Jane Dorler, 41, said she and her husband relied on their Toyota Tundra truck to make it to her parents' house for Christmas dinner.

"We didn't have to, but my husband wanted to, and he thought it was an adventure," Dorler said. "We had to go 10 miles across town, and I remember when I got out onto the road, I was like, 'they haven't even plowed this. And I said to him, 'this is probably the worst I have ever seen.'"

Though they passed several cars that got stuck in the snow, the couple made it to her parents' home safely.

At times on Monday, travel lanes on Interstate 90 were blocked by stuck vehicles or jackknifed tractor-trailers. But the highway remains open, although Pennsylvania State Police are urging motorists to postpone travel if possible.

Scores of motorists have been stranded on Interstate 90 in both Pennsylvania and New York during major lake-effect events. In Pennsylvania, the highway runs parallel to the lake, about 10-miles inland in an elevated location highly susceptible to whiteouts from blowing and drifting snow.

"The value added today is many people are still off, and obviously the schools are closed (for Christmas), so you don't have as many people going to work or out in the community," Flinn said. "The bad news is, if people are coming back from Christmas, traveling on interstates, that is obviously a concern."

Dorler, who works at a local nursing home but is off until Friday, plans to heed that advice and stay indoors on Tuesday.

Even though even more records could fall before the storm ends, both Sinnott and Dorler expect Erie will be back up and operating normally within days.

Sinnott said well-tested Erie public works crews can quickly make streets passable again once the snow stops. And Dorler said any true Erieite won't allow the snow to keep them confined indoors for long.

"It's really quite stunning but it's not really that shocking," Dorler said. "I've lived here long enough."

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