Bad weather, thousands of travellers = Messy Thanksgiving travel

Winter storm(CNN) -- A strong storm struck much of the eastern United States on Wednesday, complicating holiday travel plans for many of the 43 million Americans who filled the nation's highways, airports, and train and bus stations.

By mid-morning, delays were reported at airports in Philadelphia and New York.

Heavy winds at all three New York area airports -- LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark-Liberty -- resulted in delays of about an hour, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Departure delays from Philadelphia International Airport averaged nearly two hours.

Snow blanketed parts of the Midwest, where crews scrambled to clear roads. The storm was blamed for scores of accidents.

Up to a foot of snow was expected in parts of western New York and Pennsylvania.

The storm bumped more than 6,000 flights off schedule and forced 271 cancellations Tuesday. Early Wednesday, another 95 flights were canceled.

"I was very happy I booked the day I did," passenger Harold Rothman said. "Because if I booked tomorrow, I'd probably be delayed."

On Tuesday, low clouds and heavy rain delayed one in three flights -- 678 in all -- from Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the nation's busiest. On average, passengers were delayed nearly an hour.

"Let's face it: With 80% of our airplanes touching the congested Northeast, we're acutely aware that things can go wrong relatively quickly," JetBlue COO Rob Maruster told CNN affiliate WCBS in New York.


Amtrak reported no major delays systemwide. It expected to carry about 140,000 passengers, double its normal volume for a Wednesday.

Using the weather as a marketing tool, the nation's rail system was adding seats on some routes.

"Rail travel remains one of the most reliable and comfortable transportation options, especially in weather conditions that negatively impact other modes," Amtrak said.

There may be something to that.

"QUIET CAR. Window seat. Polite seatmate. I have hit the Amtrak travel trifecta. #blessed," Ellie Hall tweeted early Wednesday.

Road conditions were not great in much of the Northeast.

"It's sleet; it's rain; it's 31 degrees. It's ugly out there," CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.

On Tuesday night, a tornado struck Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, before crossing the sound into Morehead City, said Carteret County Emergency Services Director John Ford. The storm tore roofs from houses, uprooted trees and broke windows in buildings. It caused minor damage to a hospital and slightly injured two people, he told CNN.

Last week, 12 people died, most of them in car crashes, when one of the fronts making up the current storm iced roads from the Rockies to Texas and Oklahoma. More than 100 vehicles ended up in wrecks.

"I get on the highway, and the next thing I know I'm spinning," said Seqret Watson, among the dozens of drivers in Northwest Arkansas sent sliding when their cars hit icy bridges and roads.

"I try to grab my wheel and then I just hit the wall. Just jumped out to make sure my kids were OK," Watson told affiliate KFSM.

The Peterson family had initially planned to drive from Northern Virginia to Massachusetts. But after seeing the forecast, they booked seats on a flight at the last minute.

"It was a small fortune," Jennifer Peterson told CNN affiliate WUSA. "We could've gone to the Bahamas for what we paid!"

The forecast left up in the air the fate of the balloons in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. They are to be grounded if sustained winds reach 23 mph or gusts exceed 34 mph -- both slightly above predicted strength.

A decision will be made Thursday morning, Macy's said.

"We came all the way from Puerto Rico to see the parade, so it will be a disappointment if we don't see the balloons," said Jose Ramirez, who was in New York with his family.

But there is ample reason to support the caution.

In 1997, a woman spent more than three weeks in a coma after the Cat in the Hat balloon -- tossed by heavy winds -- struck a pole that hit her. In 2005, two other people were hurt in a similar incident involving the M&Ms balloon.

But officials say that improved weather monitoring devices en route and a police sergeant assigned to each balloon will minimize any danger.

Either way, the parade -- with or without the balloons -- will go on, organizers say.