With government offices and schools closed, plows make short work of first snowfall

If it merits a memory with anyone, the first winter weather of the season likely will be remembered by most people as a storm they watched through the living room window.

Merchants felt the pain of Christmas business lost, many offices fell more than a day behind, several thousand suffered without power, school children and some parents rejoiced at a day off, and snow plow crews pocketed overtime pay.

The second-guessing about whether the storm measured up to the hoopla that preceded it or warranted all the closings broke out with the sunshine on Tuesday afternoon. The forecast had been two to five inches of snow arriving during the morning rush hour, and both the timing and amount of snowfall were on target in many parts of the region.

With all the advance warnings, the early-morning arrival of the storm’s second punch Tuesday deterred most doubters who had prepared for work. People in and around Washington weathered in place, had a second cup of coffee and watched the snow fall from home.

It might as well have been midnight on a Sunday as phalanxes of orange trucks raced through nearly empty arteries to clear snow and spread salt.

“A big thank you to Maryland drivers and SHA crews for doing their part today,” said Melinda B. Peters, administrator of the State Highway Administration. “A combination of school, government and business closures and people heeding the warning to stay at home gave work crews an opportunity to salt, plow and clear state roads. Our job isn’t over, and we ask drivers for their continued diligence.”

Did Washington, often mocked by those in genuinely snowy places, once again overreact to the first winter storm of the season, surrendering before the first flake fell?

Weather forecasters — including the Post’s Capital Weather Gang — pointed out that in many parts of the region the snowfall lived up to predictions, but given the nature of the immense area there are no one-size-fits-all forecasts.

When temperatures creeped a hair higher than expected, less snow fell on the District and points east than on the rest of the region.

Many school districts waited until pre-dawn before shuttering their doors for the day, fearful of sending squadrons of school buses out in fast-falling snow, even as state highway officials pleaded with people to stay off the roads.

Winter-like temperatures were forecast to continue through the week, with a chance of snow on Saturday.

Tuesday’s snow and sleet along the East Coast did play havoc with the nation’s aviation system. More than 100 flights from the Washington region’s airports were delayed, and there were major backups in New York, Boston, Charlotte and Chicago.

After the storm arrived as light snow, then sleet and freezing rain on Monday, people took heed of warnings that heavier snow would follow Tuesday. The federal government along with several local government agencies, including the District and area universities were closed, as were schools in the District, Montgomery, Fairfax, Arlington, Anne Arundel, Prince George’s and Loudoun counties.

Vanessa Scott’s law office had closed for the day. But the lawyer decided to head downtown anyway, feeling she had too much work to simply take the day off. She put on her boots and winter coat. She climbed into her car.

What she found was a Washington not as snow-impaired as she had imagined.

The streets were unplowed in her Potomac subdivision but clear everywhere else, she said, stopping off for coffee at a Starbucks.

“If this is fine, I’m expecting D.C. to be fine,” Scott said. She wondered a little about the George Washington Parkway — whether it would be snowy or snarled — but she imagined things would be okay.

Perhaps, this was a case of classic Washington weather panic?

“I think it’s reflective of the fact that Washington is a Southern town,” she said. “Everyone sees the snow and they say, ‘Oh my God, it’s snowing.’”

Scott, 42, said she had assured her two children — in second and fifth grades — that they would have school on Tuesday.

“I had no doubt,” she said. So she was surprised when she got an early morning alert: Schools in Montgomery County were closed for the day.

Her reaction: “You’ve got to be kidding.”

In Rockville, Paul Gill and two other workers laid down salt and then shoveled after snow began falling.

“We put down the salt, and by the time we go around [the parking lot] and come back, it’s covered,” Gill said as they shoveled sidewalks at Mid-Pike Plaza shopping center in Rockville.

“I make a little extra money,” he said.

Some people headed out despite the warnings. Snow was falling hard and roads were mostly not plowed in Bethesda, but Chuck Papirmeister wasn’t going to miss his Tuesday morning workout.

“I was scared,” he said of the drive. “I just don’t trust what other drivers are doing. . . . It’s hard to tell how slippery [the roads] are.”

Papirmeister, who said he’s a congressional staffer, wouldn’t be commuting to work, but that didn’t keep him home.

“I’m not working today,” he said, “but I still want to do my workout.”

Barbara Hansen stopped in at a normally packed Starbucks on Rockville Pike on her way to her job as a nurse at a private day-care center for senior citizens.

“I might as well go to work,” she said with her soy Misto in hand as she headed back out into the snow. “What am I going to do at home? Just watch TV and eat.”

Even on downtown streets, few people were out in the snow. Dupont Circle was all but deserted Tuesday morning as a few people hurried to their destinations.

“I love it,” said Holly Sachi, a tourist from Los Angeles as she waited for a bus that would take her to the Mall where she planned to visit museums, hoping that at least some would be open. “We don’t have this in California.”

Mark Berman, Dana Hedgpeth, Katherine Shaver, Lori Aratani, Michael Laris, Carol Morello and Leah Binkovitz 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.
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