Lancaster County saw its first significant winter storm of the season Wednesday, burying streets, sidewalks and farmland under snow that mixed with sleet and ice as the day went on.
Flakes began falling late morning and are expected to continue into Thursday, with predictions from the National Weather Service that some parts of the county could see more than a foot of snow.
By 7 p.m. Wednesday, 7.9 inches of snow had fallen in Marietta and 4.1 in Denver, according to NWS.
Despite the forecast, motorists took to slippery local streets, where dozens of crashes were reported by early evening.
“It’s always the same for the first snow,” said Ann Weller, 911 operations manager with Lancaster Countywide Communications. “People driving in bad weather is always a challenge.”
Weller shared that perspective in the hours before snow began to drop, offering assurances that the county’s fully-staffed 911 center would be ready to dispatch responders to related emergencies.
NWS forecasters earlier this week issued a winter storm warning for much of the state, including Lancaster County. In the warning, meteorologists cautioned that snow would fall at a rate of 2 to 3 inches per hour.
Locally, that snowfall was expected to amount to 6 to 12 inches of accumulation, according to Eric Horst, a storm analyst and retired director of the Millersville University Weather Center.
Throughout the day, Horst shared updates on Twitter, explaining that the storm was “developing as expected.”
Shortly before 6 p.m., he shared a photo of a ruler sticking up from snow piled at his Manheim Township home. It showed 5.4 inches of accumulation.
About that same time, sleet began falling in Lancaster city.
National Weather Service meteorologist Amanda Wagner said that transition to sleet was expected in parts of southern Pennsylvania, and it would likely precede another later round of heavy snowfall.
“Everything is on track,” she said Wednesday evening, sticking to earlier predictions, which led service forecasters to warn that “travel could be very difficult to impossible.”
With those warnings in mind, Lancaster County Commissioners and municipal officials across the county declared snow emergencies. Decision-makers at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ordered travel restrictions, prohibiting certain vehicles from certain roads.
According to PennDOT spokesman Dave Thompson, some area roads were pretreated ahead of the storm, and “plenty” of salt and anti-skid material was available for ongoing treatment.
A total of 52 PennDOT plows are available for use in Lancaster County, he said before offering advice to motorists thinking about driving during winter storms.
“Please refrain from unnecessary driving during the storm,” he said. “Please give our plows plenty of room to operate. Don’t pass or tailgate plow trucks.”
By 12:37 p.m., more than two dozen crashes had been listed on the Lancaster Countywide Communications webpage, most of them considered non-injury incidents.
Those types of incidents persisted into the evening, with police officers, firefighters and emergency medical responders repeatedly called to crash sites.
According to state police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski, that’s part of troopers’ typical winter work.
“Significant weather events are something the department plans for and trains for. Troopers may be asked to extend shifts depending on operational needs,” he said. “But again, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for a winter storm.“
In Lancaster city, police Lt. Bill Hickey said much the same, adding that officers are used to dealing with snow-related traffic issues, especially when it’s the first storm of the year.
“It’s usually that type of call,” Hickey said, referring to crashes, and occasionally power outages that take out traffic lights.
Shortly before 7 p.m., officials at PPL Electric Utilities showed a smattering of outages in northern Lancaster County on an interactive map posted to the company’s website. The power company has about 210,000 customers in Lancaster County, spokeswoman Jessica Baker said.
“For this storm, we have hundreds of field workers available to restore outages,” Baker said earlier in the day. “They’re supported by other PPL employees working behind the scenes to help us deliver for our customers.”
Earlier tree trimming and system upgrades also were intended to protect against wintertime outages, Baker said.
“We believe the main factor in outages from this storm will be wind bringing down trees or tree limbs on power lines, but heavy snow on trees will likely play a role too,” she said.
Todd Meyers, a spokesman for Met-Ed, had pointed to similar protections throughout the company’s system, which provides power to about 2,200 local customers.
He warned that storms producing ice and wind can especially threaten utility lines.
The NWS forecast also called for gusty conditions in Lancaster County, Wagner said.
The services’ winter storm warning remains in effect until 7 a.m. Thursday.