It began on Sunday morning as a gentle flurry: tiny white flakes dancing on a merry breeze. Apart from ominous-sounding forecasts of a snowstorm from meteorological offices in the greater New York area, there was no hint of menace, no inkling, that such a benign snowfall could metastasize into a savage blizzard that would bring vast swathes of the East Coast to its knees.
But to those watching its progress from Manhattan, New York, which was to become the very epicentre of the snow's fury, its sheer acceleration was an unmistakable sign of its potency. And sure enough by 10 a.m. local time the snow was already dropping down in sheets and the gusting wind had acquired a violent edge, whipping the snow against island's resolute skyscrapers.
From that point on the transformation was dramatic — by 6 p.m. the city was barely recognisable for the post-destructive air that it had acquired. With the snow piling rapidly on the dangerously slippery sidewalks, cars skidded about helplessly, wheels churning the powdery snow in futility.
The city's denizens wandered zombie-like in their hooded snow gear, desperately seeking refuge in the nearest warm cafe.
As visibility dropped to zero and the blizzard attained a gale-force magnitude by Sunday night, it became clear that New York City was but one of the worst affected areas along the United States' eastern seaboard. With Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina pre-emptively declaring states of emergency some of the blizzard's worst consequences were mitigated through sheer preparedness.
Yet by Monday morning, when the snow and wind had abated and New Yorkers were greeted with a crisp blue sky and a fairytale-white landscape, news of travel chaos was already pouring in. Thousands of air, rail and road passengers were stranded, many unable to return to their homes or work after leaving for the Christmas weekend.
With reports citing wind speeds of 128 kmh, literally thousands of flights had to be cancelled at major airports such as New York's JFK. Power outages crippled everything from Amtrak trains to ordinary households on one of the coldest nights of the year.
Media also reported that “hundreds of cold, hungry and tired air passengers” spent the night at various airports with only some provided blankets and cots and none having access to their checked baggage.
Other eastern states fared no better. In coastal Massachusetts seaside homes were said to have been flooded by storm-driven waves, some of them even catching fire. In New England commuters were reported to have stayed off the roads with most highways and normally busy city centres eerily empty. Despite warnings by Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, conditions in the state were said to be “frustratingly bad across the region well into Monday”.
Along with Virginia, Maryland and Delaware were paralysed by train cancellations even as the storm was reported to have “meandered into the Northeast”.
While flights slowly resumed on Monday evening and Tuesday morning, there was little clarity when the backlog of cancelled flights and delayed trains would be cleared.
Even in New York — a city that has weathered all kinds of disasters — it was clear that this was one storm that would not be soon forgotten.
As one cabbie said to this correspondent, “I have been here 18 years and never once have I seen a storm this bad.”