The week ahead: What D.C. travelers need to know during Hurricane Sandy

October 29, 2012

The Maryland State Highway Administration monitors travel conditions from its operations center near BWI Marshall Airport. (Robert Thomson – The Washington Post)

This posting usually previews road and transit work that could affect your commute this week. But as Monday begins, most of you, I hope, are asking, “What commute?”

For many, there’s no place to go and no way to get there. Government offices are closed to the public, schools are shut and transportation services have suspended operations as they wait out the full effects of Hurricane Sandy.

Traffic cameras show little but pounding rain at puddling on some streets and highways that normally would be crowded with cars. Metro and other transit systems have stopped running trains and buses. Capital Bikeshare is temporarily closed.

The best travel advice for the next two days is, Don’t. You’re better off keeping an eye on the roof, the pets and the basement. A commuter might drive to work Monday morning and think this is just some heavy rain. But the conditions you encounter going in are likely to be very different from what you encounter coming back. The bridge could be closed, the roadway flooded and the intersection signals dark.

If you do have to leave home during the storm, look around and make sure the place will be secure without you for many hours.

Treat these tips as emergency advice rather than as encouragement to leave home.

Intersections

One of the worst transportation problems we have when storms knock out power is the failure of motorists to treat dark intersections as all-way stops. The District Department of Transportation noted this morning that it has deployed about 200 generators to power signals at intersections. But the District has about 1,700 signalized intersections.

Stop at the dark intersection, even if you don’t see other vehicles, or pedestrians. Stop, even if you’re road is bigger than the other road. After stopping, take turns going through. If you all stopped together, let the vehicle on your right go through first. Try to make eye contact with other drivers or pedestrians — though that’s going to be difficult with dark skies and driving rain.

Driving

The dangers of deep water should be obvious. It’s hard to miss the safety messages that remind us that moving water is very powerful. And driving fast through standing water isn’t going to help you get through the standing water. It’s more likely to cause your vehicle to hydroplane, and you will lose control.

One thing that might be less obvious: Beds of fallen leaves on the roads and sidewalks are extremely slippery. Drive as you would in a winter storm. Go slowly. Don’t brake hard.

Walking

Watch out for those leaves. Wear bright clothing, so you’re visible to motorists. (Drivers do the same, because Sandy could make you a pedestrian before your drive is done.) Carry a flashlight, so you can see and so others can see you.

Watch for downed wires and give them a wide berth. Falling trees and tree branches are likely to b problems for several days.

Wear a sturdy raincoat and boots. As the storm develops, an umbrella is likely to be more of a hazard than a help.

Transit

For now, there is no transit. The D.C. region’s transit systems will evaluate their equipment and the roads and rails they travel on before restoring service.

 Traffic information

The Maryland and Virginia transportation departments both have 511 information systems. That means you can telephone to 511 in either state to get updates on travel conditions. The Virginia online system is online at: www.511virginia.org. Maryland is online at: www.md511.org.

In the District, it’s useful to monitor the Twitter feed from the District Department of Transportation: https://twitter.com/DDOTDC.

All the highway departments are using their information systems and highway signs to provide storm alerts, but if you don’t see a problem listed this way, don’t assume your road ahead is clear.

If you encounter a transportation emergency anywhere in the D.C. region, call 911. If your car breaks down on the highways in Maryland or Virginia, hit #77 on your phone to contact state police.

The Virginia Department of Transportation’s Customer Service Center (the number to report downed trees and other common problems on state roads) is: 800-FOR-ROAD (800-367-7623). For a Maryland state highway emergency that does not require police assistance, call 800-543-2515. Use this link to find a phone number for a Maryland State Highway Administration shop to report a maintenance problem.

Use this link to find phone numbers for Maryland’s county road departments.

To request government services in the District, call 311.

Use this link to see The Post’s updated list of closings and cancellations.

The Post also has a live blog with frequent updates on Hurricane Sandy news.

Keep up to date with the Capital Weather Gang’s latest storm information.

Use this link for other useful information, including the power company numbers.

At mid-week, I hope we’ll be back to providing more typical road and transit information, but we’ll keep you posted on how Hurricane Sandy is affecting the transportation system in the D.C. area.


Video: Dr. Gridlock’s tips for driving in severe weather.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Mark Berman | October 29, 2012