2011 storm taught lesson about fighting Mother Nature

Traffic on Baron Cameron Avenue was jammed for hours on Jan. 26, 2011, as heavy snow blanketed the D.C. area. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Traffic on Baron Cameron Avenue was jammed for hours on Jan. 26, 2011, as heavy snow blanketed the D.C. area. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The morning rush was nonexistent in the D.C. area. That’s because the federal and local governments and the school systems were thinking ahead in a way they did not before the last serious storm struck on the afternoon of Jan. 26, 2011.

That event left homeward-bound commuters stalled side by side with the plow trucks that were trying to clear the roads. And it left the people responsible for winter weather planning chastened.

There was an attitude change after that — humility in the face of Mother Nature. Managers in charge of deciding whether offices and schools should be closed became more willing to close them in advance of a storm, rather than bring people in and then send them home as the storm was arriving. Highway departments tamped down the can-do message about how many plows they could deploy and amped up their warnings that people should stay off the roads while giving their crews a chance to work. They also focused even more intensely on treating roads and deploying equipment before storms arrived.

Branco Vlacich, who leads the Virginia Department of Transportation’s snow-fighting efforts in the D.C. suburbs, said the message to his own department was to be more aggressive in deploying for minor events. The message for commuters was that sometimes it’s better to telework and let the road crews accomplish their missions.

From time to time in the past several winters, we’ve seen that these are not easy decisions for the officials to make. On occasion, the forecast will exceed the punch actually delivered by a storm, yet the offices and schools already were closed. People will tweet pictures showing open roads and empty Metrorail cars. They’ll complain that the area’s leaders are terrified of a few flakes.

The highway departments get similar grief. Drivers see plow trucks deployed to wait for snow that doesn’t arrive. Tax dollars are being wasted, they say.

Let’s review what happened in the Jan. 26 storm:

The forecast for the day was spot on: We were supposed to get an intense blast of snow starting around 4 p.m., and we got it. But many people were already in their offices. An early rush hour preceded the arrival of the storm. But others stayed at work till the first flakes began to fall. The mix of storm and commuters shut down the region for the rest of the day. Commutes that normally took an hour lasted for eight.

Rapidly falling snow wasn’t the only problem. The Post’s Tim Craig reported that the District received 700 calls about fallen trees or branches, some of which blocked eight of the city’s major routes. Transportation crews had to remove 112 vehicles abandoned during the storm. More than 40 accidents tied up D.C. traffic on main escape routes including 16th Street and Connecticut and Georgia avenues.

Suitland Parkway was shut down after 5 p.m. because the snow made it impassable.

Transit service also was hit hard. Across the region, 217 Metro or county buses were stuck or stalled across the region.

Maryland State Police in Montgomery County ended up towing 180 vehicles from the Capital Beltway and I-270. Montgomery police towed several hundred vehicles from local roads and were still doing so Thursday afternoon, The Post reported.

Even if not another flake falls today, the decision makers still did the right thing in announcing the full-day closings.

See the latest on the snow storm from the Capital Weather Gang.

Here’s the full list of closings in the D.C. region.

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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