The brutal winter storm that pounded the Northeast on Wednesday has subsided, but its effects are still being felt by millions of Americans dealing with a thick blanket of ice that has downed trees and frozen power lines — especially in Pennsylvania, where an official likened the situation to post-hurricane conditions.
"The damage that we are seeing in the field with the number of trees down, not only on lines but blocking roads and more, presents a number of logistical issues," Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said. "This damage is very similar to what we see during hurricanes."
The Northeast's second winter storm of the week dumped more than a foot of snow in some states — forcing schools, businesses and government offices to close; snarling air travel; and sending cars and trucks sliding on icy roads and highways, an all-too-familiar litany of misery in a winter when storms seem to be tripping over each other.
In all, more than a million Northeastern homes and businesses lost electricity, according to local power companies. At its height, the storm knocked out power to nearly 849,000 customers in Pennsylvania, most of them in counties around Philadelphia.
Late Wednesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett issued a disaster-emergency proclamation, freeing up state agencies to use all available resources and personnel. Pennsylvania’s National Guard has also been activated, but it could take up to a week to restore electricity and clear roads of fallen trees.
"People are going to have to have some patience at this point," Corbett said on Wednesday, warning that an overnight refreeze could cause more problems on the roads Thursday.
PECO, southeastern Pennsylvania's dominant utility provider, warned it could be the weekend before the lights come back on for all of its more than 423,000 customers without power. It was the second-worst storm in PECO's history, eclipsed only by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
In neighboring Maryland, where 76,000 customers were in the dark, power companies gave a restoration estimate of Friday. More than 7,000 New Jersey customers also lacked electricity.
Thousands of utility workers descended on the Philadelphia suburbs to get the lights back on. "We know that this is going to take multiple days," PECO spokeswoman Cathy Engel Menendez said.
About 3,500 employees and contractors were working to restore power, while an additional 1,000 linemen from utilities as far away as Chicago were expected to join the company's efforts, she said.
The American Red Cross opened three shelters in southeastern Pennsylvania where residents without electricity could find warmth.
"We've been told to be prepared for four to six days. We are gathering staff and volunteers for up to a week," spokesman Dave Schrader said.
In some areas, stocks of rock salt were almost depleted, making it difficult to treat dangerous road conditions. Officials in New York and New Jersey, as well as some commercial suppliers, reported shortages.
"We have a salt shortage for some parts of the state, primarily New York City and the Long Island area, because there have been so many storms this season already," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters on a conference call. "The state does have a significant amount of salt on hand. We'll be shipping that salt around the state."
In New Jersey, Joe Dee, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said, "We've had so many storms, one after another, that it definitely has put a very significant demand on salt."
Al Jazeera and wire services