Snowstorm finds D.C. region prepared; cold, blustery weather will continue

The snow that swept over Washington on Tuesday in predicted fashion found the region hunkered down and ready, as hundreds of thousands stayed home from work and school, extending their long holiday weekend by another day.

Schools, the federal government and some local governments shut their doors before the first flake descended. Other governments opened — including the city of Alexandria and Arlington and Anne Arundel counties — only to close early. Scores of meetings and events that weren’t canceled in advance announced postponements throughout the day.

Thousands of flights were canceled across the country as the Northeast, including Philadelphia, New York and Boston, was expected to get more than 10 ­inches of snow.

The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang said the snow would end well before dawn Wednesday, with most of the region’s streets expected to be plowed clear. Public school system closures announced Tuesday night included Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, and Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, along with Alexandria, in Virginia.

Frigid temperatures were expected to settle in until Saturday. After an overnight dip to about 9 degrees, the temperature was predicted to rise to a high of about 14 on Wednesday, the National Weather Service said. Much of the region is under a wind-chill advisory.

The Capital Weather Gang's Jason Samenow says the snow falling on the Washington area will continue to increase in intensity this afternoon, followed by a drop in temperatures. (Pamela Kirkland/The Washington Post)

In an age when naming winter storms is in vogue, this one might have been called Prudence. With plenty of warning about the size and scope of the snowfall, public officials and the citizenry almost all opted to do the prudent thing: shut down and let it pass.

It was not the lazy, romantic snowfall that moves poets to verse. It came in nubby little flakes driven by biting gusts of wind that left pedestrians hunched over, holding their hats, and caused dozens of accidents on the roads. It was light, fluffy stuff, however, not the kind that takes down power lines to leave people in the dark.

After most winter storms — with the exception of the true blizzards in the winter of 2009-2010 — people around Washington generally spend about a day mulling whether the forecast wildly missed the mark or complaining about how one agency or another bungled the snow-clearing mission.

Weather prediction in this indecisive region is like courting a fickle lover, but this time the forecasters seemed to get it right, and with so many staying home, road crews kept ahead of the worst of it.

“We’ve just hunkered down,” said Shannon Phelan, 35, after she and her family scooted home to Gaithersburg just ahead of the snow, departing early from Williamsburg to avoid slippery highways. “I would just be gritting my teeth, I would be so nervous.”

Much like the fabled weather fault line — the invisible boundary that splits the region, allowing Mother Nature to throw curveballs — people who make their home here tend to display a divide in their view of winter weather.

“This is Washington, and Washingtonians don’t know how to deal with the snow,” said Carl Iskow, 67, who has lived in the city for five decades and still was surprised that governments closed before it even began to snow.

Accumulations in the Washington metropolitan area

Dean Hunter, who leads the Office of Personnel Management’s emergency-response staff, said the agency and representatives from the region’s local governments decided around 4 a.m. Tuesday to close down the federal government. Hunter was persuaded by several factors: the prediction of up to 10 inches of snow, most of it coming around noon; the speed of the snowfall, falling an inch or two per hour until 6 p.m.; 15 mph sustained winds, with gusts up to 40 mph, that could blow shoveled snow back onto roads, and low temperatures that leave sidewalk and road salt virtually useless.

It’s never just one thing, he said. “There’s no easy magic formula to this. It’s an individual assessment of all the variables,” Hunter said.

Michael Cucciardo was a lone man at work at 11 a.m. Tuesday at a school in the District’s Shaw neighborhood. He saw snowflakes. He did not see a weather crisis.

“It’s snowing,” he said. “It’s winter. The roads are a little wet.”

Cucciardo grew up in Pittsburgh. He went to college in Wisconsin. He knows bitter cold.

“Below-zero temperatures and six to seven inches of snow is business as usual,” said Cucciardo, who has lived here for 30 years. “It’s really manageable. They just don’t know how to handle it as well. I think we tend to overreact.”

Why?

“It could be because we are such a legal city, and everybody wants to err on the side of caution to prevent liability issues,” he said.

For people who grew up in areas that frequently see heavy snow, the frantic preparations and region-wide closures can seem a little odd.

“I’m from Colorado, and this doesn’t faze me at all,” said Jennifer Cloutier, 43, of Gaithersburg. “I think people are nuts to stay inside.”

“It’s just snow — it doesn’t bite,” added her friend Cathy Williams.

“I always laugh when I see snowstorms in D.C.,” said Kristin Gilroy, 28, who lives in Logan Circle but grew up in Sparta, N.J.

During the “Snowpocalypse” storm of 2009, Gilroy lived on frozen meals from CVS. She said that if the forecasts this week had called for a similar snowfall, she would have stocked up on food, but she didn’t do that for potentially seven or eight inches.

“So no, I’m not prepared,” she said. “My kitchen is empty.”

People who line up at the last minute to buy bread, milk and toilet paper may not be procrastinating so much as they are simply hedging their bets, said Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University: “It’s most likely because they’re anticipating it won’t be as bad as predicted.”

It’s all a matter of adjusting to the norm, said Augusto Pellarini, who moved to the region from Germany about five years ago.

“In Germany, not going out when it snows would mean that in many parts of the country people would not go out for weeks and weeks,” he said. “My impression is that people are more prepared in Germany, but then maybe because there is more experience.”

“Anything below 70 is kind of freezing for us,” said Jaime Owens, 49, of Panama, as he and his family stood near the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall.

Near the Capitol, Krzysztof Kubiak, 28, of Poznan, Poland, paused with a group of friends to wrap coats and scarves tighter.

“We are from Poland, normally a kind of cold country,” he said. “We’re supposed to be used to it. It’s very cold. It’s not the best weather for sightseeing.”

Crime appeared to be curtailed but not frozen. At least two robberies were reported to police, one at Fourth and T streets NW, the other in the 900 block of Sixth Street SW.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said the steady snowfall that had developed by midday Tuesday vindicated his decision to close schools and government offices.

“I suspect that this morning there were people who questioned the decisions that we made,” Gray said. “But I think as we look at the conditions outside now, hopefully it is clear that it was the right decision to make.”

Lori Aratani, Mark Berman, Lynh Bui, Dana Hedgpeth, Peter Hermann, Victoria St. Martin, Ian Shapira, Michael E. Ruane, Martin Weil and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local