Winter Storm Already Wreaking Havoc on Transit

Winter’s icy grip tightened across a vast swath of the U.S. on Tuesday as a single giant storm threatened to dump record piles of snow, sleet and ice along a path stretching from the Great Plains to New England.

By midday more than 4,500 flights had been cancelled at airports from Dallas to Boston.

Blizzard warnings were in effect in virtually every major city throughout the Midwest, including St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee. In the Northeast, a potentially lethal combination of rain, snow and ice was glazing highways connecting Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

Chicago, meanwhile, is bracing for one of the worst storms in decades. Two feet of snow are expected to fall between Tuesday afternoon and early Wednesday morning, and the National Weather Service’s 24-hour forecast includes the following phrases : “blizzard conditions,” “flood warnings,” “thunderstorms,” “near zero visibility”, “very windy”, etc.

More than 1,200 flights have been cancelled so far at Chicago’s two major airports, O’Hare International and Midway.

“This is not a typical winter storm, this is one for the history books,” said Edward Fenelon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Romeoville, Ill., outside Chicago.

Airlines, including Continental and United (NYSE:UAL), American (NYSE:AMR), JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) and US Airways (NYSE:LCC), are acknowledging the storm by allowing passengers to change plans without penalties.

White House issued a statement noting that President Obama has been briefed by Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate.

New York is still digging out from the 19 inches or so of snow that fell on the region late last week. Central Park was blanketed in 36 inches of snow in January, a record for that month. This time around ice is the greater concern. Boston is expecting a foot of snow, adding to the record amounts that have already fallen there.

The monster storm unleashing its fury across the U.S. had little impact on stock markets Tuesday, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average soared on strong earnings reports from a handful of key companies including delivery giant UPS (NYSE:UPS) and drug maker Pfizer (NYSE:PFE). The possibility does exist that Wednesday's trading session won't have a full stable of traders given the dicey commuting conditions that are anticipated.

But the long-term impact of the brutal winter so far is already being felt.

Retailers are predicting that sales could fall as a result of consumers staying home rather than braving the inclement weather. And cash-strapped state and local governments are struggling to find the money to plow clogged streets.

New Jersey, for example, has already run through the $20 million earmarked for snow removal and there are still two months of winter left. And officials in the New York City Mayor’s office have said the Dec. 26 storm that paralyzed the city for several days used up all of the nearly $39 million set aside for snow removal.

The cold, wet, snowy weather has also taken its toll on construction spending, which fell 2.5% in December, according to data from HIS Global Insight, a research firm.

“Bad weather played a role in keeping the numbers down,” the firm said in a research note issued Tuesday. “December 2010 was one of the coldest Decembers on record in the South, one of the wettest in the West and one of the snowiest in the Northeast and Midwest, according to the National Climatic Data Center.”

Tuesday’s weather doesn’t bode well for February’s numbers. In all 30 states were under winter storm warnings or blizzard warnings on Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.