By Greg Botelho and Ben Brumfield
(CNN) — It’s ugly out there. And it’s only getting uglier.
Tuesday has been a mess for much of the East Coast. A massive storm that started in California soaked a huge swath from Florida to New England, with snow and sleet falling in pockets of Pennsylvania and New York.
This system isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, it could cause even more problems and headaches on Wednesday, especially if you are among the thousands at airports waiting and waiting and waiting to fly home for Thanksgiving.
That’s because winds are forecast to pick up and sock densely populated places in the Northeast in the next day or so.
For drivers, big gusts mixed with drenching rains can slow things down any day. For air travelers, there is always a big trickle-down effect when places like New York’s LaGuardia and Kennedy airports or those in Philadelphia and Boston experience wind delays.
When this kind of stuff happens on one of the biggest travel days of the year?
Let’s just say people along the East Coast may have many good reasons to give thanks this holiday season. But the weather likely won’t be one of them.
Storm blamed for wrecks, deaths
The expected issues shouldn’t overshadow what this storm has already done, and continued to do Tuesday.
The system started on the West Coast, proving its might from the get-go.
A 52-year-old man in Yuba County, California, died Thursday when a tree fell on top of a vehicle, a county sheriff’s office said. Road conditions were blamed for the deaths of two people in New Mexico. Three people were killed in an icy pileup along Interstate 40 late Friday in northwest Texas. The weather also was blamed for four deaths in Oklahoma since late last week
Those were just some of the casualties from a storm that has led to more than 100 wrecks.
There was more where that came from Tuesday. One stretch of the the Pennsylvania Turnpike, about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh, saw a little of everything over the course of the day — snow, rain, ice — according to CNN’s Shannon Travis.
Snow was the issue for cities and towns along the Appalachian Mountains, all the way down to West Virginia. Parts of upstate New York, including Buffalo and Syracuse, were seeing flakes on Tuesday night.
Still, it wasn’t — or at least won’t be — especially chilly everywhere.
The National Weather Service forecast temperatures to rise into the 50s during the night in Philadelphia and Boston.
But there, the temperature won’t be the story so much as the wind speed. Sustained winds in New York — where the thermostat should hit 55 degrees by 5 a.m. — will reach 19 to 24 mph, with gusts blowing as strong as 55 mph. It will not be much better Thursday, when the forecast calls for breezes from the west at 21 to 24 mph, with more potent gusts.
Forget the rain: That wind could hamper the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade through the streets of Manhattan. The giant balloons that are the parade’s trademarks — featuring characters from Hello Kitty to Snoopy to the Pillsbury Doughboy — won’t soar if sustained winds exceed 23 mph that day, because of fears that the balloon handlers won’t be able to control them.
“We have a sergeant assigned to each of the balloons,” New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. “They can be lowered all the way to the ground if the determination is made not to fly them.”
Slick roads, high winds
Chances are no one will miss the gigantic balloon versions of Papa Smurf or Pikachu around the dinner table on Thursday.
But the same might not hold true for hundreds trying to fly out on airplanes over the coming days.
As of Tuesday night, the weather’s effect on flights was fairly minimal. As of 10:30 p.m., 158 flights had been canceled nationwide with another 84 scuttled Wednesday, according to the air travel tracking website Flightaware.com. The highest number of pre-Thanksgiving Day cancellations with 28 so far is northern New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport, the site says.
There is a possibility this situation could turn for the worst, quickly, leading to major delays if not more cancellations. CNN’s meteorology unit estimates, if winds blow as forecast, New York metro area airports could see average delays of two to three hours, and Boston’s Logan airport could be even worse.
This wouldn’t just affect those flying in and out of those airports, or others like Washington’s Dulles or Reagan that could be similarly affected. There’s a ripple effect because of the logistics of carefully coordinated schedules and connecting flights that could affect many of the 3.14 million people that AAA projects will fly this weekend.
In expectation of such headaches, major airlines like Delta, U.S. Airways, JetBlue and United have already relaxed their policies by letting some customers change their reservations without a fee.
Still, the vast majority of travelers — 43.4 million, by AAA’s count — won’t be in the air, but on the road.
For them, the combination of strong winds and slick surfaces, even if they aren’t coated with snow or ice, could lead to problems.
In other words, make a plan if you will be among these millions over the next few days, packing snacks and patience in case you come to a crawl. And, as always, drive safely.
CNN’s Indra Petersons, Dave Hennen, Dave Alsup, Rene Marsh and Holly Yan contributed to his report.