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SKYE on AOL

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    A downed tree had what little traffic there was down to one lane in Madison, Wis. on Thursday. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King)

    NEW YORK (AP) - Midwesterners aren't the only ones who could get slammed by the storm that's expected to bring heavy snow, winds and rain to the middle of the country over the next couple of days. Stores could get hit too.

    With sales during the holiday shopping season disappointing so far, the nation's retailers are depending even more on these final days leading up to Christmas for a boost in business. Retailers are hoping the storm won't change shoppers' plans.

    Jon Adam, 22, said he's finished most of his holiday shopping. But Adam, who lives in of Grand Rapids, Mich., was planning to go out this weekend to buy $80 perfume at a specialty store located 35 miles away for his girlfriend. The looming snowstorm, however, is making him rethink that.

    "I don't know if things are going to freeze over," he said. "We're all used to snow. But we haven't had that big snow (storm) this year. So everyone is on edge."

    The first big snowstorm of the season, which began in the Midwest on Thursday, is just the latest challenge facing stores during this holiday shopping season. The period, which runs roughly from November through December, can account for 40 percent of a store's annual revenue. And the Midwest accounts for about 18 percent of the nation's retail sales, according to MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse, which tracks spending.

    So far this season, sales have been lackluster as shoppers have held back their spending because of worries about the weak U.S. job market and the possibility that a stalemate between Congress and the White House over the U.S. budget could trigger tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff" next year. That would mean less money in shoppers' pockets.

    ShopperTrak, which counts foot traffic and its own proprietary sales numbers from 40,000 retail outlets across the country, slashed its retail sales forecast for the season on Wednesday to an estimated 2.5 percent increase to $257.7 billion. The company had previously predicted a rise of 3.3 percent for the season.

    "This comes at a crucial weekend," said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics, a research firm. "This is the end game. These days are huge as sales have been soft in November and December. They need a strong finish to carry through."

    Most major stores and malls said that local managers are keeping an eye on the weather. Kohl's closed its Beaver Dam, Wis. store late Thursday. And Dianna Gee, a spokeswoman at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said that 15 of its nearly 4,000 stores were closed for a few hours Thursday because of the storm. But all but three stores in Kansas, Missouri and Iowa have reopened.

    "There's been no major impact at this point," Gee said, noting that the affected stores have seen a spike in sales of snacks as shoppers prepared to stay home.

    Target, which is watching 46 stores across Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, said it has "prepositioned" inventory such as shovels and winter clothing to areas that are expected to get significant snow. The discounter said in a statement on Thursday that all of its stores are open and that the "goal is to remain open for impacted communities to have access to winter storm essentials."

    Scott Bernhardt, president of Planalytics, which tracks the effect of weather on retailers, said he does not expect the storm to meaningfully affect retail sales because it's hitting before the weekend begins. He also said the location of the storm will work to stores' advantage.

    "The upper Midwest is going to take some hits, but the areas that are shut down are not Fifth Ave., downtown Atlanta or L.A.," he said.

    In fact, Bernhardt said the storm might actually be good for apparel retailers because shoppers could stock up on sweaters and coats. "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but this is not going to shut us down," he said. "And for apparel retailers it's actually good news."

    At least one mom-and-pop store owner in Indianapolis agrees.

    Jennifer Von Deylan, which owns IndySwank clothing and art store, said she isn't worried about the weather hurting her business.

    "It's Indy. We're used to snow," she said. "People are going to get their Christmas gifts. If they have last-minute shopping to do, I think they're going to do it no matter what."

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Blizzard Leads to 25-Vehicle Crash

     

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    Near-blizzard conditions continue Friday morning with heavy snow and high winds across parts of Michigan and northern Indiana as a storm moves along the U.S.-Canada border.

    Travel is hazardous and not advised across portions of the Midwest into Friday as the winds continue to howl. The cold winds will continue to trigger lake-effect snow squalls downwind of the Great Lakes into the weekend.

    RELATED ON ACCUWEATHER: Are you dreaming of a white Christmas? Check out the forecast here.

    Cold, stormy weather is marching eastward Friday as a second storm center develops off the East Coast. Snow and a wintry mix will impact the interior Northeast, while high winds howl in the major I-95 cities. Travel delays will result the strong winds, while strong onshore winds will lead to localized coastal flooding in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

    Midwest Blizzard Photos, Video: "It Took the End of the World for it to Snow."

    For the latest snow map, click here.

    For more on holiday travel, click here.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Blizzard Leads to 25-Vehicle Crash

     

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    This image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows a large ocean-drifting dock that washed ashore in a remote section of coast in the Olympic National Park. (AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard)

    SEATTLE (AP) - A dock that apparently was ripped away from Japanese waters by a tsunami and drifted for more than a year and a half has washed ashore on one of the most remote beaches on the U.S. West Coast.

    It was spotted Tuesday by the Coast Guard on Washington's rugged Olympic Peninsula.

    Tsunami debris experts didn't try to reach it by ground until Thursday because of stormy weather and treacherous terrain - and then they were turned back within 200 yards of their goal when they reached a dangerously swollen stream, said David Workman, spokesman for the state Marine Debris Task Force.

    The ground team that hiked four or five miles on primitive trails got a good look at the dock through binoculars, Workman said. Team members, however, were unable to cross normally passable Mosquito Creek, now running high and fast.

    They planned to try again Friday, if weather permits, so they can verify the dock's origin, measure it and inspect it for invasive species.

    Workman said tides in the area make Friday the "last best shot" to reach the dock before early January.

    Officials say the dock appears to be similar to a Japanese dock that washed ashore last June in Newport, Ore. That debris was cut up and removed.

    Removing the dock or just scraping it clean of potential invasive species of marine life "is going to be a real challenge to find the right solution," Workman said.

    "It's a very precarious location to get to, especially in these conditions," Workman said. "At high tide there's no beach and you've got a bluff."

    The beach is between La Push and the Hoh River on the northwest tip of Washington. The nearest town is Forks - of "Twilight" book and movie fame. It's about 100 miles west of Seattle.

    It's along 70 miles of wilderness beaches protected by the Olympic National Park. The waters are in the 3,200-square-mile Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

    The tsunami debris task force, made up of federal, state and tribal agencies, wants to secure the dock until officials decide how to deal with it, Workman said. Officials are concerned about non-native plants or animals that hitched a ride.

    They also need to confirm its Japanese origin.

    It's believed to be similar to the 165-ton concrete and steel dock that washed ashore in June at Newport. Looking like a railroad boxcar, it was 66 feet long, 19 feet wide and 7 feet high. A plaque identified it as one of four owned by Aomori Prefecture that broke loose from the port of Misawa during the March 2011 tsunami.

    Volunteers scraped off 2 tons of seaweed and creatures that were clinging to the Newport dock. Among them were four species - a seaweed, a sea star, a mussel and a shore crab - that are native to Japan and have established themselves as invasive species elsewhere, said Caren Braby, manager of marine resources for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

    Officials won't know for a couple years whether any of them escaped to get a foothold in Oregon, she said.

    The scrapings were buried above the high water line. The dock was sterilized with torches, then cut up and removed last summer.

    The Olympic dock could get the same treatment to head off a non-native plant or animal taking hold, said state Fish and Wildlife Department spokesman Bruce Botka.

    "Our folks are looking at everything at the front end to avoid having a much bigger problem later," he said.

    U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell's office said the Olympic dock was confirmed as tsunami debris from a photo taken by a fisherman and analyzed by a researcher working under a RAPID National Science Foundation grant to track debris. Cantwell, D-Wash., is pushing federal legislation seeking $20 million for tsunami debris removal.

    While the dock is likely of Japanese origin, Workman said officials will follow the protocol established by the United States and Japan to reach a definitive conclusion.

    As of Dec. 13, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had received 1,432 debris reports, of which 17 have been confirmed as tsunami origin.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 10 Craziest Things to Go Airborne in a Storm

     

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    People gather in front of the Kukulkan Pyramid in Chichen Itza, Mexico, Thursday. (AP Photo/Israel Leal)

    MERIDA, Mexico (AP) - In the darkness before dawn Friday, spiritualists prepared white clothes, drums, conch shells and incense ahead of the sunrise they believe will herald the birth of a new and better age as a vast, 5,125-year cycle in the Mayan calendar comes to an end.

    No one was quite sure at what time the Mayas' 13th Baktun would officially end on this Dec. 21. Some think it already ended at midnight Thursday. Others looked to Friday's dawn here in the Maya heartland. Some had later times in mind.

    "Wait until the dawn on the 22nd; that is when we Maya will speak," Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu said earlier in Guatemala, another Maya area.

    Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History even suggested that historical calculations to synchronize the Mayan and Western calendars might be off a few days. It said the Mayan Long Count calendar cycle might not really end until Sunday.

    Whatever the details, the chance to welcome a new time seemed to be the main concern among celebrants drawn to the Yucatan peninsula.

    Many people who came to Yucatan for the occasion were already calling it "a new sun" and "a new era."

    "The galactic bridge has been established," announced spiritual leader Alberto Arribalzaga at a "galactic connection" ceremony Thursday in Merida. "The cosmos is going to take us to a higher level of vibration ... where humanity is in glory, in joy,"

    What nobody was calling it is the end of the world, as some people in recent years have interpreted the meaning of the end of the 13th Baktun - despite the insistence of archeologists and the Maya themselves it meant no such thing.

    "We'll still have to pay taxes next year," said Gabriel Romero, a Los Angeles-based spiritualist who uses crystal skulls in his ceremonies.

    If the chanting and dancing of a crystal skull ceremony held Thursday weren't end fears of an apocalypse, scientists chimed in, too.

    Bill Leith, the U.S. Geological Survey's senior science adviser for earthquake and geologic hazards, said that by late Thursday, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary had been detected in seismic activities, solar flares, volcanos or the Earth's geomagnetic field.

    "It's a fairly unremarkable day on planet Earth today, and in the last few days," Leith said. "There are no major eruptions going on."

    There had been about 120 small earthquakes and a moderate temblor in Japan, he said. "That's very much a normal day."

    Still, there were some who wouldn't truly feel safe until the sun sets Friday over the pyramids in Yucatan peninsula, the heartland of the Maya.

    Mexico's best-known seer, Antonio Vazquez Alba, known as "El Brujo Mayor," said he had received emails containing rumors that a mass suicide might be planned in Argentina.

    He said he was sure that human nature represented the only threat Friday. "Nature isn't going to do us any harm, but we can do damage to ourselves," he said.

    Authorities worried about overcrowding and possible stampedes during celebrations Friday at Mayan ruin sites like Chichen Itza and Uxmal, both about 1 1/2 hours from Merida, the Yucatan state capital. Special police and guard details were assigned to the pyramids.

    As Friday's dawn began sweeping around the globe, there was no sign of an apocalypse.

    Indeed, the social network Imgur posted photos of clocks turning midnight in the Asia-Pacific region with messages such as: "The world has not ended. Sincerely, New Zealand."

    Average residents of the Yucatan, where the Mayas invented the 394-year calendar cycles known as baktuns, the 13th of which ends Friday, were pretty upbeat about the day.

    Yucatan Gov. Rolando Zapata said he felt growing good vibes.

    "We believe that the beginning of a new baktun means the beginning of a new era, and we're receiving it with great optimism," Zapata said.

    Even before the baktun's end, hundreds of spiritualists from Asian, North American, South American and European shamanistic traditions mingled amiably with the Mexican hosts at a convention center in Merida on Thursday.

    Dozens of booths offered people the chance to have their auras photographed with "Chi" light, get a shamanic cleansing or buy sandals, herbs and whole-grain baked goods.

    "This is the beginning of a change in priorities and perceptions. We are all one," said Esther Romo, a Mexico City businesswoman who works in art promotion and galleries. "No limits, no boundaries, no nationalities, just fusion."

    RELATED ON SKYE: The Funniest Tweets About the Apocalypse

     

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    A man dressed as Santa Claus, arrives at a home to deliver toys in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York on Tuedsay. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

    NEW YORK (AP) - From his toy-cluttered Brooklyn apartment, the man in the red suit was making his list and checking it twice. But he made no distinction between naughty or nice: Every child on it would receive a gift from this Santa Claus.

    For the children whose toys floated away during Superstorm Sandy, Michael Sciaraffo is playing the role of a real-life Saint Nick. Every afternoon and night, he stuffs his red sack to the brim with presents and heads out to storm-ravaged homes, personally delivering new toys to awestruck little kids whose play rooms were destroyed by floodwaters. And with less than a week before Christmas, his "Secret Sandy Claus Project" is keeping him very busy.

    "Between the requests coming in for personal visits as well as the influx of donations, it's been a full-time job," said Sciaraffo, a 31-year-old political consultant. "And kudos to Santa, because I don't know how he pulls it off every year."

    There's hardly any room to sit in his tiny apartment, where boxes of toys are piled on tables and all over the floor. He spends most of the day keeping track of toy requests and donations that are pouring in by the hundred from people who know children affected by the storm. At first, Sciaraffo began jotting down the requests on Post-it notes, but as demand steadily grew he created a spreadsheet and taped it to the wall.

    The list reads like an inventory for a toy store. A Playskool swing for 2-year-old Jacob. A Disney Fairies makeup set for 5-year-old Charlotte. Then there are countless robots and footballs and baby dolls arranged by age and gender, awaiting assignment to a specific child.

    "The goal was to match up each child with a toy that they liked or asked Santa for for Christmas," Sciaraffo explained. "We basically tried to pair them up with toys I had in stock."

    The charitable enterprise grew out of a Sandy donation outreach effort that Sciaraffo had been spearheading for weeks in the wake of the storm, drumming up donations of clothing and food through Facebook. As the holidays approached, he realized that lots of children would be without their toys this year.

    And with their parents preoccupied with the drudgery of storm repairs, many children probably might not even get to sit on Santa's lap. So he decided to fill that gap himself.

    "When I was a kid, my toys were very important to me," Sciaraffo said. "That's their security blanket, so to speak. I couldn't sit home and do nothing."

    Donations are coming by the truckload from all over the country, fueled by his Facebook page. And Sciaraffo has received elf-like help from fellow New Yorkers like Sean Turk, a father of three from Queens who has raised more than $2,000 from his community and has been filling toy requests at local stores.

    "I started it with $500 of my own," Turk said, "and then people just started contributing."

    On a recent rainy afternoon, Sciaraffo pulled on his white wig and beard and drove out to weather-beaten Belle Harbor, a town on the Rockaway peninsula. His first stop: the darkened oceanfront home of Elizabeth Sampol, who was waiting upstairs with her 11-month-old daughter, Ella.

    "Ho, ho, ho," he shouted. "Merry Christmas!"

    Ella gazed up at him and smiled as Sciaraffo handed her a toy duck. Sandy struck just after her first birthday party and destroyed all of her new gifts when the basement flooded.

    "As you can see from the outside of the house and the inside of the house, it's been a disaster," said Elizabeth Sampol, who has been living in a FEMA-funded hotel room for several weeks with her family while their home is repaired. "And we haven't had time to take her to go see Santa Claus or to do anything that we would want to do for her first Christmas that actually matters."

    Sampol said she was amazed when she learned about Sciaraffo's project.

    "He contacted me and he told me how he's been going around giving out gifts," she said. "And I was so happy that someone would do this in his free time."

    A few blocks away, 4-year-old Sophie Creamer waited excitedly by the front door as she caught sight of Sciaraffo coming down the street. And when he handed her a brand-new Barbie doll, she clutched it to her chest and wouldn't let go.

    "It's all gutted. We don't have a basement," said her mother, Lori Creamer. "So she lost all of her toys."

    If all goes according to plan, Sciaraffo is hoping to deliver presents to nearly 1,000 children in the coming days.

    As he hoisted his sack of toys over his shoulder, heading off to another delivery, the rain stopped and a rainbow cut a path across the sky. He took it as a sign of good luck.

    "You don't see that every day," he said, grinning as his beard slipped down his face a little. "Amazing."

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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    Friday, Dec. 21, 6:28 p.m. ET

    Department of Parks and Recreation employee Phillip Forney shovels snow and ice in downtown Columbus, Ind., Friday, Dec. 21. (AP)

    DETROIT (AP) - The first widespread snowstorm of the season weakened as it moved east Friday, but not before it dumped more than 1 ½ feet of snow in Michigan and made travel difficult in the Great Lakes region.

    A semitrailer went out of control on a bridge slick with snow, barreled down an embankment and struck a concrete barrier in Indiana, killing the driver. In Michigan, a school bus carrying six children crashed into a tree that had fallen across a road in near white-out conditions. There were no injuries in that accident.

    The storm, part of a system that began in the Rockies earlier in the week, was blamed for deaths in at least five states. Snow was forecast Friday in Pennsylvania, and the system was developing a second front with a mix of snow and rain in the New York City area and New Jersey. It was expected to "spin its way northward through New England and into Canada" into the weekend, National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Adam said.

    In Gaylord, Mich., where Adam is based, people were digging out of what he called "concrete snow" - precipitation that was heavy, wet and hard to handle. Adam said he had to snow-blow for the second time in 12 hours and take a chain saw to a downed tree on his street before he could get out for work Friday morning. The area recorded 19.6 inches of snow.

    "It's a big wallop of winter weather," Adam said.

    Aviation officials and travelers welcomed sunny skies in Chicago, where more than 500 flights were cancelled at the two airports the day before. Only 50 flights were canceled Friday, and a similar number faced delays of up to two hours.

    Robin Mamlet, of Berwyn, Pa., spent Friday morning at Philadelphia International Airport waiting for her daughter to arrive home for the holidays from college in Chicago. Her daughter's original flight was canceled Thursday due to the blizzard and her rebooked flight at 6 a.m. left an hour late.

    Still, the plane landed in Philadelphia in plenty of time for the next step in their holiday plans: a midday flight to Puerto Rico for a five-day vacation.

    "So we're in very good shape - very lucky," Mamlet said.

    Others didn't fare as well. Haverford College freshman Iliana Navarro, 19, was trying to get from Philadelphia to her family in Anaheim, Calif., but her Friday afternoon flight to John Wayne Airport was canceled because it was also scheduled to stop in still-congested Chicago.

    Navarro said the next flight she could get on was Sunday, and she had no place to stay since her college campus had closed for the holidays.

    "I don't know what they're expecting me to do," Navarro said. "Am I supposed to camp out in the airport?"

    Utility crews worked to restore power in a half-dozen states, but thousands remained without service after heavy snow and strong winds pulled down lines. Some schools canceled classes for a second day.

    Charlene DeWitt said Friday afternoon that the lights were flickering at her home in Michigan's eastern Upper Peninsula, during high winds that followed about 18 inches of snow. She and her husband, Marv, a retired state park ranger, had stocked up on provisions the day before and planned to stay indoors.

    "We haven't had this much snow in quite a while," said DeWitt, a retired teacher in the area that historically receives generous helpings of snow during long winters. "It's very slippery, wet snow. Not the nice, fluffy kind. But it's very Christmassy and very beautiful."

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Blizzard Dumps Snow on Midwest

     

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    Dec. 21, 2012

    Betty Russell describes what happened when her Paris Avenue home was damaged after severe weather snapped pine trees that crashed into the house Thursday, Dec. 20, in Mobile, Ala. (AP)

    MOBILE, Alabama (AP) - An Alabama woman said Friday she fell asleep on the couch and didn't realize a tornado had ripped off part of her roof and damaged most of the home until firefighters and neighbors came to check on her.

    Betty Russell, who will turn 77 on Dec. 26, said she slept through the violent storm Thursday night after she dozed off on the sofa watching TV. She was woken by sirens from rescuers in the area afterward.

    "I didn't know I was that heavy a sleeper," she said. "It had caved in the south side of my house and honestly I didn't hear it. I cannot believe I didn't hear it but I didn't."

    Russell walked threw her debris-strewn house and looked at the hole in the ceiling of her bedroom, where she usually sleeps.

    "There is a huge hole right where her bed is," her grandson, Scott Russell, 13, said. "She usually goes to sleep in that bedroom, but for some reason she didn't do it this time and she was saved."

    Betty Russell believes angels helped keep her safe. She collects small statues of angels and has them displayed on bookshelves, tables and glass cases throughout the home where she has lived since 1962. Russell said her two most important angels are her husband and son, who died at different times both within weeks of Christmas.

    "I love angels and I was just in Rome last month in November and I just enjoyed the basilicas and other places we toured with paintings and statues of little chubby angels," she said. "Personally, I feel like I have two angels, my son and my husband, so feel like I was looked after."

    She doesn't know when she will start repairs to her roof, bedroom and the outside of her home. She plans to go ahead and spend Christmas with family in Colorado, something she was looking forward to before the storm.

    In the meantime, she is counting her blessing that she wasn't harmed.

    "I am so thankful to God," she said.

    As passersby stopped to check out the massive trees that smashed into the house and crushed a neighbor's sport utility vehicle, the Russell family quietly salvaged what they could and marveled that she wasn't hurt.

    "She was actually woken up by the sirens and didn't know what happened until the fireman escorted her outside," daughter-in-law Phyllis Russell said.

    "We are just so thankful that she is OK. She is a strong woman and she is definitely a role model."

    SEE ON SKYE: 18 Incredible Photos of Tornadoes

     

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    Breaking Weather: Travel Delays Continue

    Saturday is expected to be a tough one for travelers on the I-95 corridor in the Northeast. Wind gusts are blowing snow onto the highways, as well as JFK and Newark airports, creating delays.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos from 2012

     

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    The next system in a series of powerhouse storms will slam onshore Saturday into Sunday.
    Very heavy snow will impact northern California with 2-4 feet expected in Mount Shasta City, Dunsmuir, McCloud and Tennant.

    Portions of Interstate 5 near Mount Shasta City and Highway 89 near Snowman's Summit will likely be impassable at times due to the snow.

    The snow will also have severe impacts east of the Cascades on Highways 140 and 97.
    Strong, gusty winds of 40-60 mph will cause blowing and drifting snow, which will significantly limit visibility.

    RELATED ON ACCUWEATHER: Lake-Effect Snow, Whiteouts Follow Midwest Blizzard

    Several inches of snow is also expected in the Coastal Range and Northeast Foothills, and even into the northern Sacramento Valley, including the city of Redding.

    The heavy, wet snow will likely cake on many surfaces, and combined with the wind, power outages will also result.

    If you will be traveling through the region, be prepared for the extreme winter weather.

    Have food, water, blankets and warm clothes ready in case you get stranded. You should also be sure to carry chains and practice putting them on your vehicle before heading out.

    It will be wetter, rather than whiter, for the lower elevations. Areas from Santa Maria north to Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Eureka will see 1-4 inches of rainfall and localized flooding.

    RELATED ON ACCUWEATHER: Sierra Snowstorm

    Stay with AccuWeather.com for up-to-the-minute information on this dangerous storm.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos from 2012

     

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    These four Golden Retrievers couldn't be happier for the official start of winter on Friday - and the couple inches of snow they received in Michigan. Some parts of the state got as much as 19 inches of the white stuff.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Blizzard Dumps Snow on Midwest

     

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    This NOAA satellite image taken Saturday at 2:00 p.m. EST shows a cold front moving into northern California and the Pacific Northwest with coastal rain and mountain snow. Cloudy conditions are seen over the central and southern Rocky Mountains. AP Photo/Weather Underground.

    SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Heavy rains toward the coast and plenty of snow in the mountains made holiday weekend travel tough in Northern Californians, with worse on the way.

    As one storm system moved through the region Saturday, a second, more powerful system was expected to hit the area Sunday, forecasters said.

    The first storm drenched the region, dropping more than an inch of rain in Redwood City, about 24 miles south of San Francisco, in a little more than six hours early Saturday, said National Weather Service forecaster Diana Henderson.

    To the east in the Sierra Nevada, Interstate 80, the main route between Sacramento and Reno, Nev., was shut down for about three hours after snowy roads caused several spinouts, but was reopened later in the afternoon, state highway officials said.

    Officials said tire chains were mandatory for all vehicles except four-wheel drives on all three major mountain highways between the Sacramento and Reno areas - I-80 over Donner Summit, U.S. 50 over Echo Summit and State Highway 88 through Carson Pass, which was also briefly shut down.

    Up to 5 feet of snow is expected in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada before the weekend is over.

    Interstate 5 near the Oregon border was open to cars and truck with chains. It had been shut down late Tuesday for about 12 hours after a 60-car pileup near Yreka then closed again Friday when a storm dropped several inches of snow in some areas of Siskiyou and Shasta counties.

    The second storm was expected to arrive early Sunday. "It's expected to bring some sustained winds, with a possibility of thunderstorms and moderate to heavy rain," Henderson said.

    The weather was causing delays Saturday at San Francisco International Airport but was affecting mostly regional flights, airport duty manager Shannon Wilson said.

    Arriving flights were being delayed up to 45 minutes Saturday afternoon, and about 12 flights had been canceled because of a change in the direction of prevailing winds, Wilson said.

    With the wind coming from the south instead of the west, only two of the airport's four runways were being used for takeoffs and departures, Wilson said.

    "It's an unusual wind for us," he said.

    North of San Francisco, more than 6 inches of rain fell Friday in the tiny Sonoma County community of Venado. And with a second storm approaching, officials were paying close attention to the rising levels of the Russian River.

    The river was expected to peak just below "monitor stage" on Christmas Eve, said National Weather Service hydrologist Allan Takamoto. That's about 3 feet below flood stage but high enough that officials had a "heightened awareness of what's going on," Takamoto said.

    The heavy rain caused problems on local highways, forcing officials to close a section of Highway 128 in Napa County near Lake Berryessa.

    In Mendocino County, Highway 162, which connects the community of Covelo with Highway 101, was closed because of a washout.

    Along the beaches, waves up to 16 feet were expected. Forecasters were urging people walking along beaches or jetties to watch for large breaking waves.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Blizzard Dumps Snow on Midwest

     

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    Raw: Flood Warnings Issued For Southwest England

    Torrential rain across much of Great Britain caused major flooding in the southwest on Saturday, with residents forced to wade or cycle through floodwater or use makeshift boats. Several people have had to be rescued from flooded cars, and more rain was expected to hit the region Christmas Eve, the BBC reported.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 10 U.S. Cities Most at Risk from Rising Sea Levels

     

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    The Troy family in Long Beach, N.Y. on December 12, after visiting their home, which is under renovation after it was seriously damaged by Superstorm Sandy. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    LONG BEACH, N.Y. (AP) - The text from Sister Diane at St. Ignatius Martyr church was as odd as it was urgent: "A man is going to call. You must answer the phone."

    Kerry Ann Troy had just finished her daily "cry time" - that half-hour between dropping the kids off at school and driving back to her gutted house on New York's Long Island, or to the hurricane relief center, or to wherever she was headed in those desperate days after Sandy, when life seemed an endless blur of hopelessness and worry.

    Cellphone reception was sporadic, so even if the stranger called, she would likely miss him. Besides, she had so many other things on her mind.

    After spending the first week with relatives in Connecticut, Troy, a part-time events planner for the city, and her husband, Chris, a firefighter, had managed to find a hotel room for a week in Garden City. The couple had no idea where they and their three children - Ryan, 13, Connor, 12, and Katie, 4 - would go next. Hotels were full. Rentals were gone. Their modest raised ranch, a few blocks from the beach, was unlivable.

    But the Troys faced another dilemma.

    The family had been looking forward to a weeklong, post-Thanksgiving trip to Disney World, paid for by the Make-A-Wish-Foundation to benefit Connor, who suffers from a life-threatening, neuromuscular disease. He had lost one wheelchair to the storm. His oxygen equipment and other medical supplies were damaged by water. He was disoriented and confused.

    How could they tell their sick child that the storm that had disrupted his life might also cost him his dream - to meet Kermit the Frog?

    Yet Chris Troy felt he couldn't leave. And Kerry Ann said she wouldn't go without him.

    And then - in the space of a few hours - everything changed.

    A school administrator pulled Kerry Ann aside when she went to pick up Katie. She told her of a vacant summer home - a spacious, fully furnished, three-bedroom house in nearby Point Lookout, which the owners wished to donate to a displaced family. The Troys could live there indefinitely, at no cost, while they sorted out their lives.

    Kerry Ann could hardly believe their good fortune. The kids could stay in their schools. The family could go to Florida after all.

    But that was only the beginning.

    The stranger that Sister Diane had texted her about earlier had left a message.

    His name was Donald. He wanted to meet the Troys. He wanted to help.

    ___

    At St. Ignatius Martyr, offers of help began pouring in as soon as the storm waters receded: spaghetti dinner fundraisers, fat checks from churches in North Carolina and Texas, smaller donations from nearby parishes.

    For weeks the church had no power, heat or working phones. Masses were held in the school gym. Monsignor Donald Beckmann, scrambling to help his displaced parishioners, was a hard man to track down.

    But Donald Denihan, a 51-year-old businessman from Massapequa, managed to find him. He wanted to see the devastation firsthand. And he wanted to help one family rebuild. He would pay for everything, from demolition costs to new paint. He just wanted to make sure he found the right family, perhaps someone elderly, perhaps someone with a disability.

    Over the phone he asked Beckmann: "Will you help me choose?"

    The priest's heart sank. There were thousands of families in need, people who had lost everything. How in the world could he pick just one?

    A few days later Beckmann and Sister Diane Morgan gave Denihan a tour of their battered barrier island town off the South Shore of Long Island. They took him to the West End, a warren of narrow streets named after the states - Arizona, Ohio, Michigan - and crammed with small homes, many of them passed down from generation to generation. The neighborhood is staunchly working class; police officers and firefighters and teachers live here, many of them of Irish and Italian descent.

    Now it was a disaster zone. Nearly every home had been flooded, their interiors - kitchen stoves and sheet rock, children's toys and mattresses - spilling out of Dumpsters that lined the streets.

    Father Beckmann drove Denihan to a small raised ranch at 103 Minnesota Avenue with a wheelchair ramp at the side. He told him about the family who lived there, the Troys, how they had evacuated to Connecticut mainly because of their sick son, how Kerry Ann's childhood home around the corner, newly rebuilt after burning to the ground six years earlier, had been lost to the flood.

    Then he took Denihan to another ruined house, the tiny bungalow where the church's 74-year-old cook had climbed a 7-foot ladder into the attic to escape the rising water. All she could do was pray as she watched her disabled son nearly drown in his wheelchair below.

    Both families were in urgent need of help, Beckmann said. Which one would Denihan choose?

    Denihan listened intently.

    After surviving three near-death experiences - a duck-shooting accident at 16, prostate cancer at 36, and a serious boating accident in 2011 - he had concluded there was a reason God wanted him around.

    And so Denihan, who had made his money in hotel and real estate investments, had set up a fund. He called it God is Good. Until now, he wasn't sure how he would use it.

    "I can't choose, Father," Denihan confessed, as they drove back to the church. "I'll just have to take care of both."

    The priest offered up a silent prayer of thanks.

    The nun grabbed her cellphone and texted Kerry Ann.

    ___

    Nothing had prepared Chris Troy for the sight of his home when he returned two days after the storm. The basement - including his beautifully finished wooden bar, Kerry Ann's office space, the kids' playroom, the laundry and boiler room - were dank and foul-smelling and mold was already growing. The water had reached to the ceiling, seeping into the living room, kitchen and bedrooms upstairs.

    Troy prides himself on his stoicism, on being able to cope with anything. But a few hours passed before he could bring himself to break the news to his family.

    "The house is a mess, and Daddy will fix it," he told Katie, who burst into tears when she heard her toys were gone. "And the toys you lost you will get back at Christmas."

    In reality, he didn't know how the family was going to cope or where they would spend Christmas. Insurance wouldn't cover the basement area. He couldn't afford to pay for repairs himself. And though friends and volunteers offered to help, most could spare only a few hours because they were so busy dealing with damage to their own homes.

    "We were in a tough situation," Chris said.

    So they gladly agreed to meet with Denihan. Perhaps he would offer to pay for the sheet rock, or a generator, Chris thought. That would be nice.

    Denihan showed up with a contractor. He walked through the house. He talked to the children. He seemed kind and matter-of-fact and purposeful.

    Standing on their front porch, in the chilly morning sun, Denihan made a promise. He would rebuild their home. They could make any alterations they wanted, like installing a wheelchair-accessible shower and central air, something the Troys had dreamed of, because Connor's disease causes him to overheat.

    "I'll take care of everything," Denihan said. "And we'll start first thing tomorrow."

    It was a few days before Thanksgiving and the Troys, distracted by the move to the borrowed house and their upcoming trip to Florida, didn't fully comprehend. What exactly did he mean by "everything?"

    It wasn't until a moving van trundled up the next morning and workers carted off their remaining belongings and started tearing down walls, and Denihan told Kerry Ann to start picking out paint colors and tile, that the enormity of it began to sink in.

    "This stranger walks into our lives and offers not just to rebuild our home, but to build us a better home," said Kerry Ann. "And another family lends us their home. It's absolutely a miracle."

    ___

    The trip to Disney World was the best of their lives. Connor had never been happier, bright and alert and grinning from ear to ear as he met the Magic Kingdom characters - Mickey and Woody and the Minions and, of course, Kermit. He went on carousel rides specially rigged for wheelchairs, splashed in the pool in his water chair and ate ice cream all day long.

    Back home, they marvel at their new accommodations: The house is bigger than their own, with sweeping views of the Atlantic and a backyard with a swing-set that Katie calls her private park.

    Still, they wrestle with how to come to grips with their new reality. And how to give thanks.

    The Troys are used to struggle, to battling through on their own. Kerry Ann's father died when she was a 19, after seven years in a coma, and she helped raise her younger siblings. They nearly lost Connor a few years ago, after spinal surgery left him in a body-cast for eight weeks and doctors didn't think he would survive. Kerry Ann's mother, Kathy, spent a year living with them in the basement, while her burned home was rebuilt.

    So they find themselves agonizing over Denihan's generosity, sure of their gratitude but unsure how to process it.

    "How do you thank someone for giving you back your home and your life," Chris asks. "What do I do ... give him a child?"

    Denihan isn't looking for thanks - and he has his own children. He said he just feels blessed to be in a position to help, and grateful that others are pitching in, too. His contractors - plumber, electrician and builder - have offered to do the work either for free, or at cost. Perhaps, he says, others will hear the story and step up to help more Sandy victims in the same way.

    Denihan hopes the family can move back home for Christmas - a goal the Troys initially thought was wildly optimistic, until they saw how rapidly everything was progressing. Already, new walls have gone up, the accessible shower has been installed, they have light and water and heat.

    Most of all, two months after Sandy destroyed their home and disrupted their lives, they have hope. And plans.

    They will have Christmas and a tree and Santa will bring the kids gifts. They will throw a party at their sparkling new house on Minnesota Avenue.

    And they will celebrate a special Mass at St. Ignatius Martyr to give thanks for surviving the storm - and for the miracle that happened after, when strangers walked into their lives and gave them back their home.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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    By Kristina Pydynowski, Senior Meteorologist

    An outbreak of severe weather, including tornadoes, threatens to ruin Christmas Day for families and communities across the Gulf Coast states.

    The area at greatest risk for damaging thunderstorms and tornadoes on Christmas Day stretches from southeastern Texas to the Florida Panhandle and southwestern Georgia.

    That zone is home to College Station and Houston, Texas, Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, La., Jackson and Gulfport, Miss., Montgomery and Mobile, Ala., Pensacola, Fla., and Albany, Ga.

    See Also:
    Important Tornado Safety Tips to Follow
    Major Oklahoma to Northeast Snowstorm in the Works

    AccuWeather.com meteorologists are especially concerned for the potential for loss of life with this outbreak since it will actually commence during the predawn hours of Christmas across southeastern Texas.

    Tornadoes touching down during the nighttime hours is always a dangerous situation as people may sleep through vital warnings or have difficulty seeing an approaching twister.

    The severe weather danger will then expand eastward on Christmas Day, encompassing central and southern Louisiana, the southern half of Mississippi and Alabama and southwestern Georgia and the Florida Panhandle.

    In addition to tornadoes causing destruction, severe thunderstorms capable of unleashing damaging winds and flooding rain are a serious concern.

    The violent thunderstorms should organize into a solid line by Tuesday night and march across Alabama, northern Florida and Georgia with damaging winds.

    The severe weather danger should reach the Southeast coast, from eastern North Carolina to northeastern Florida, on Wednesday.

    Wilmington, N.C., Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla., are among the communities at risk this day.

    The same storm set to trigger the impending severe weather outbreak will also spread a swath of significant snow from the southern Plains to the eastern Great Lakes and Northeast from Christmas Day to Thursday.

    Ahead of this storm, another system is triggering showers and thunderstorms across the South today. Thunderstorms causing damage this Christmas Eve would be extremely isolated occurrences, but the danger of lightning striking anyone spending the day outdoors still exists.

    SEE ON SKYE: 18 Incredible Photos of Tornadoes

     

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    By Kristina Pydynowski, Senior Meteorologist

    A last-minute snowstorm will allow more of the Northeast to experience a white Christmas after all.

    It is beginning to look more like Christmas across northern New England, downwind of lakes Erie and Ontario and the central Alleghenies following the late-week winter storm and lake-effect snow.

    But there are still plenty of places across the Northeast where the ground is bare and residents are wishing for a white Christmas.

    AccuWeather.com has good news for many of those residents with a storm headed to the Northeast.

    The storm will be far from a repeat of the Midwest blizzard with a general 1 to 3 inches expected to spread from central and northern Pennsylvania to central and southern New England.

    Cities where the snow is expected to guarantee a white Christmas include Williamsport and Scranton, Pa., Albany and Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Boston, Mass., Portsmouth, N.H., and Providence, R.I.

    There will also be a light coating as far west as central and northeastern Indiana and southeastern Michigan, including Detroit, on Monday.

    While not enough to bring holiday travel to a standstill, a general 1 to 3 inches of snow would still create headaches for travelers.

    The snow that falls during the daylight hours of Monday would not be heavy enough to cause problems on roadways, but low-hanging clouds and reduced visibility may delay flights.

    Monday evening and night is when motorists will have to use caution when traveling to and from Christmas Eve services. With the loss of sunlight, even a light amount of snow will have an easy time coating and turning roads slick.

    Along the Pennsylvania Turnpike and into the northern mountains of West Virginia, a mix of ice pellets and snow threaten to cause travel troubles.

    Across central Pennsylvania, including in State College, AccuWeather.com meteorologists are concerned that freezing drizzle will follow the accumulating snow later Monday night.

    However, not all of the Northeast will see a white Christmas.

    A surge of milder air would prevent anything but rain falling across southern New Jersey, central and southern Delaware, southern Maryland, Washington, D.C., and most of Virginia.

    Part rain and part snow will fall from central and northern Ohio and from northern parts of the Virginias, western and central Maryland and southern Pennsylvania to central New Jersey, New York City and southernmost New England.

    Kids and those young at heart should not get excited for a white Christmas in this zone. If any snow accumulates, it will be held to under an inch.

    As the upcoming storm departs the Northeast Tuesday night, residents and visitors will have to quickly turn their attention to a new storm that will be far more potent.

    This second storm will evolve into a major winter storm for the Northeast, complete with howling winds, soaking rain and substantial snow.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Blizzard Dumps Snow on Midwest

     

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    By Kristina Pydynowski, Senior Meteorologist

    Not often does Dallas, Oklahoma City and Little Rock see snow on Christmas, but Mother Nature is ready to defy those odds this year.

    Residents of Dallas, Oklahoma City and Little Rock may find it hard to believe snow is on the way for Christmas with temperatures set to warm into the 40s and 50s today.

    In addition, the chance of a white Christmas in all three cities is less than five percent.

    However, kids and those young at heart will be happy to learn that snow will indeed fall on Christmas thanks to the arrival of a strengthening winter storm and noticeably colder air. On the other hand, travelers both on the ground and in the air are likely to greet that news with jeers.

    See Also:
    Christmas Day Tornadoes: Southeast Texas to Florida
    Major Oklahoma to Northeast Snowstorm in the Works
    More Northeast Snow Just in Time for Christmas


    Snow from the Rockies will reach western Kansas, western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle during the predawn hours of Christmas. At the same time, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes will start erupting across southeastern Texas.

    Oklahoma City will also see a few snowflakes (and ice pellets) fly before sunrise on Christmas, but the daytime is when heavier snow will fall and accumulate 3-6 inches.

    Snow will continue to evolve farther to the east as Christmas progresses, changing over from rain in Dallas during the afternoon and Little Rock in the evening. Around an inch of snow will whiten Dallas with 1-3 inches expected in Little Rock.

    Up to a half of a foot of snow (locally more) will bury places just north and west of Little Rock, including Fort Smith, Ark.

    The last time an inch or more of snow has fallen on Christmas in Little Rock as 1926 (2.5 inches).

    For Oklahoma City, one has to go back to 1914 when 6.5 inches fell. The city technically had a white Christmas as recently as 2009 when 14 inches of snow was still on the ground following a Christmas Eve blizzard.

    The blizzard of 2009 also brought Dallas its first measurable Christmas Eve snowfall on record.The snow this Christmas, even down to Dallas, is sure to create severe headaches for travelers.

    Roads will become slick and treacherous, including Interstates 35, 40, 44 and 540. Gusty winds howling will worsen the situation by blowing and drifting the snow around, reducing visibility for motorists.

    Where the snow is preceded by rain, another danger lurks for travelers as additional icy spots and any wet or slushy areas freeze with the arrival of the cold air.

    Conditions will quickly improve for travelers in and around Oklahoma on Wednesday as the potent winter storm heads northeastward toward the eastern Great Lakes and Northeast.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Blizzard Dumps Snow on Midwest

     

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    Frozen Sea Water Glazes China Shore

    A blast of wintry weather brought a chill to parts of China's coast this past weekend. Wind-blown sea water froze upon coastal structures in the northeastern city of Yantai, where temperatures dropped below 5 degrees Fahrenheit, creating these icy, awesome scenes.

     

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    (AP Photo)

    The strong Pacific frontal system of the West Coast will push inland on Monday bringing snowy and windy weather to the Intermountain West this Christmas Eve.

    Precipitation will start out as rain or a wintry mix of rain and snow during the morning hours in the valleys and will changeover to all snow in most locations by the afternoon.

    Periods of heavy snowfall coupled with northwest winds averaging between 15 to 25 mph with higher gusts to 45 mph will reduce visibilities down to near white out conditions at times and create periods of drifting snow. Snow accumulations through Monday night will range from 1 to 4 inches in the southern valleys, 4 to 7 inches in the northern valleys and plains, and 6 to 10 inches in the mountain valleys, and up to 20 inches with locally higher amounts in the mountains.

    These wintry weather conditions will make for hazardous travel conditions and will impact travel plans. Roads across the region will become slick and hazardous with snow and ice developing on bridges and overpasses. Motorists are encouraged to allow extra travel time for traveling during the holiday. Please monitor your local forecast and road conditions carefully.

    Elsewhere in the West, as the Pacific frontal system moves inland, high pressure will begin to build into the West Coast, allowing for drier weather conditions across much of the Pacific Northwest and California.

    In the East, a weak trough of low pressure crossing the Eastern U.S. will kick up showers and a few thunderstorms across the Southeast and into the Tennessee Valley as it heads into the eastern Atlantic Ocean.

    This weather activity will pick up across the region and spread into Lower Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic through the latter half of the day as another trough of low pressure from the West approaches and moist flow from the Gulf of Mexico increases across the Gulf Coast.

    Strong thunderstorms in parts of eastern Texas and the adjacent Louisiana areas may turn severe from the mid-evening onward. While the main concerns with storms in these areas will be hail and isolated damaging wind events, a few tornadoes may also develop.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: The World's Best Christmas Festivals

     

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