Eastern US sees warm Christmas, winter storm looms for Plains

Women enjoying a warm day on their bikes in Central Park, New York on Dec 25, 2015.
Women enjoying a warm day on their bikes in Central Park, New York on Dec 25, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON  (REUTERS) – Much of the United States East Coast basked in unseasonable warmth on Christmas Day with record high temperatures set or tied in several cities, including New York, even as a tornado hit Alabama and a major winter storm loomed for the southern Rockies and Great Plains.

The twister in Birmingham, Alabama, late on Friday (Dec 25) afternoon damaged several homes, uprooted trees and caused a handful of minor injuries, police and weather officials reported.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jody Aaron said the tornado damage appeared limited to the southwestern end of the city, the state’s largest in a region of the South that has been hit hard by three days by thunderstorms and torrential rain.

The most noteworthy weather phenomenon for most of Eastern Seaboard, meanwhile, was a continuing pattern of temperatures about 20 degrees above normal.

The temperature in Manhattan’s Central Park climbed to 66 degrees Fahrenheit (19 degrees C), the highest Christmas Day mark in at least 146 years, while Philadelphia topped out at a record-tying 68 degrees F (20 degrees C), according to the National Weather Service.

Temperatures around Washington, DC, reached the upper 60s and low-70s F, just a few degrees shy of record highs despite cloudy, damp weather. Both New York and Washington posted record warmth on Thursday (Dec 24), as well.

Above-average temperatures were expected to linger along the Eastern seaboard through the holiday weekend, with heavy rains falling across much of the South and mid-Atlantic region raising the possibility of flash floods.

Parts of Alabama were deluged by more than a foot of rain Wednesday (Dec 23) evening through Friday (Dec 25) afternoon, while Georgia also was soaked with nearly 5 inches (12cm)  of precipitation measured at Atlanta’s airport, according to the Weather Service.

But even as soggy conditions in the South begin to abate, a powerful winter storm was forming across the southern Rockies and Plains, threatening blizzard conditions for parts of New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma on Saturday, forecasters said.

As much as 61cm of snow was possible in areas of New Mexico and northern Texas, they said.

Snow already was falling on Friday (Dec 25) in parts of Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota, a region bisected by heavily travelled Interstate 90. “This is coming at a bad time for travel,” said Richard Baan, a meteorologist for the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

Heavy rain, and possible flooding, was expected from the same system on Saturday (Dec 26) in eastern Oklahoma, Arkansas, north-central Texas and Louisiana, Baan said.

A separate winter storm in California’s Sierra Nevada brought more welcome relief to ski resorts struggling through a four-year drought that has left the mountain snowpack badly depleted. The two largest ski destinations near Lake Tahoe – the Heavenly Mountain Resort and Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows - reported receiving 2 feet (61cm) and 19 inches (48cm) of snow, respectively, on Thursday (Dec 24) and Friday (Dec 25).

Facing delays stemming in part from severe weather this week, package delivery company FedEx Corp said it was manning customer counters with volunteers on Christmas Day.

A storm system on Wednesday (Dec 23) set off tornadoes that killed at least 15 people in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said on Friday (Dec 25) that two people were still missing.