By Neale Gulley
BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) - Powerful winds and snow whipped parts of the eastern United States on Saturday, carrying the promise of a white Christmas while threatening to cause problems for the many Americans traveling for the holidays, meteorologists said.
The storm moving in from the Midwest was sending strong winds into the mid-Atlantic states and southern New England. It buried parts of Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin in more than a foot of snow earlier this week.
The high winds threatened to delay flights at busy airports in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, meteorologists said.
Due to the winds, departing flights were delayed at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and at Washington Dulles International Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
More than 87 million Americans are expected to travel 50 miles or more away from home over the holidays, the travel and auto group AAA has forecast. Nearly nine out of 10 will be on the roads, it said.
Residents in and around Buffalo, New York, awoke on Saturday to 4 to 6 inches of snow - the season's first significant accumulation in the notoriously snowbound region.
Typically, the area would have roughly a foot of snow by the Christmas holidays, but there has been little or nothing this year.
"There was something missing," Mayor Rob Ortt of North Tonawanda, New York, just north of Buffalo, said of judging the city's holiday lighting contest in the past week. "I think this was the first year there was no snow, not even a dusting."
"Everyone thinks of us as a place where snow is, and you relish it at Christmas time," he said, adding, "When we have snow around St. Patrick's Day, that's when people get annoyed."
The National Weather Service predicted a few more inches of snow for the Buffalo region on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
A new storm could bring snow as well to the central Appalachians, northern mid-Atlantic and southern New England on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, Accuweather.com said.
Residents of Harrisburg and Scranton, Pennsylvania eastward to Hartford, Connecticut, and Boston could expect a white Christmas, it said.
"It could be a white Christmas after all in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, New England and other areas across the nation," said Alex Sosnowski, Accuweather senior meteorologist.
New York City is likely to see a mix of snow and rain, he said.
RELIEF FOR SKI RESORT OPERATORS
Several inches of snow fell on Saturday in parts of western Pennsylvania. In central New York, snowfall of up to an inch an hour at times was predicted by the National Weather Service.
Ski resort operators in western New York greeted the snow with relief and said the cold air was making conditions ideal for snowmaking.
"It hurts not to be open yet," said Andy Minier, ski racing coordinator at Kissing Bridge ski area, about 30 miles south of Buffalo.
On Saturday, high winds were buffeting the New York City metropolitan area, eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, the National Weather Service said.
It predicted hazardous conditions due to winds for upstate New York, northwestern Connecticut, southern Vermont and western Massachusetts.
Wintry air blowing off the eastern Great Lakes was causing icy conditions in western and northern Pennsylvania, upstate New York and West Virginia as well, Accuweather said.
On the Gulf Coast, meteorologists say, dangerous thunderstorms and tornadoes are expected on Christmas Day.
The affected areas are likely to be southeastern Texas, central and southern Louisiana, southern Mississippi, southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, Accuweather said. Cities in those areas include Houston; Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana; Gulfport, Mississippi; Montgomery and Mobile in Alabama; and Pensacola, Florida; it said.
(Additional Reporting and writing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Mohammad Zargham)