Washington region facing what could be worst storm of the season

A winter storm that swept across a part of the country where people typically go to escape winter shut down the Deep South on Wednesday, then moved north to wallop the Washington region.

The ice and powerful wind gusts that robbed 350,000 homes and businesses of power in Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina were headed here. Some forecasters were predicting “potentially catastrophic” conditions in parts of Georgia and the Carolinas.

Although the storm led to the cancellation of more than 3,100 flights Wednesday, many of them connections through the nation’s busiest airport, in Atlanta, it had not caused the widespread panic seen there two weeks ago when a storm caught it unprepared.

This time, Atlanta was ready. And, with plenty of warning, Washington and its surroundings appeared to be, too.

Late Wednesday, snowplows were at the ready, salt trucks were poised, states of emergency had been declared, the populace was braced and the obligatory trio — bread, milk and toilet paper — had been swept from market shelves.

Upcoming storm: Snowmageddon or Sno-show? Capital Weather Gang's Jason Samenow weighs in on how much snow we'll get. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

None of those pre-storm cliches about winter weather needed dusting off this time as the Washington region prepared for what threatened to be the worst storm of a long season of cold and snow.

Although the forecast of at least four to eight inches of snow, plus sleet and freezing rain, would draw snorts of laughter from those who live not so terribly far to the north — Philadelphia and New York have been snowbound this year — Washington battened down for weather paralysis.

Some school officials decided Wednesday that the threat was too great to allow their yellow buses out of the barn Thursday. Schools in Montgomery, Prince George’s, Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties, among others, along with D.C. and Alexandria public schools, announced they would close for the day, delighting many schoolchildren and worrying parents and administrators that the school year would have to be extended deep into June.

The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang forecast that four to eight inches of snow would be on the ground by 7 a.m. Thursday, with greater accumulations possible locally. Within 15 miles of Interstate 95 and points east, snow was likely to mix with and change to sleet and freezing rain between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m.

In western Fairfax and Montgomery, snow was expected to continue, possibly bringing several more inches of accumulation.

As of about 9 p.m. Wednesday, however, the snow that had arrived from the south was civilized, even fluffy. The storm wasn’t expected to show its true character until around midnight, when one to two inches of snow could accumulate by the hour.

As the first dusting of snow covered the District’s sidewalks and streets, at least one Yellow Cab driver was unfazed by the prospect of yet another snowfall.

“The weather is going to do what it’s going to do,’’ said Charles Smoke, 55, a car salesman who was working on a day off as a part-time cabbie. “I’m gonna go out here right now and get me some fares while I can.”

The declarations of snow emergencies were more than show: They mean that vehicles parked on designated snow emergency routes have to be moved to clear the way for plows.

“We are ready, our equipment is ready, and we have plenty of salt,” said William O. Howland Jr., director of the District’s Department of Public Works. “Of course, if enough snow accumulates, we will plow the streets.”

Howland said that under the snow emergency, which went into effect at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, vehicles parked on those routes would be towed and their owners would face a $250 fine plus towing fees. “We’re going to impound every snow-emergency vehicle,” he said.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) also declared snow emergencies that prohibit cars from parking on designated emergency routes.

“There’s a big swath of nasty snow and ice that’s moving up the East Coast,” O’Malley said during an early afternoon news conference Wednesday. “It’s a big storm, and it has the potential to do a lot of damage.”

The prospect of significant snow followed by ice and rain put power lines at risk.

Pepco, which serves the District and much of the Maryland suburbs, said it had about 600 linemen ready to react.

Virginia Dominion Power warned customers to be prepared for prolonged power outages should ice or wet, heavy snow down lines. The utility said it was working through the Southeastern Electric Exchange to make sure additional resources were available. About 700 non-Dominion line crews from states as far away as Michigan, Louisiana and Oklahoma were scheduled to be in the region through Friday, according to the Dominion Web site.

The District and state agencies in Maryland and Virginia said they had plenty of salt despite a winter that has consumed thousands of tons of it.

Maryland has used about 319,000 tons of salt and has more than 240,000 tons available.

“We are moving some salt within our districts in preparation of this storm,” said Valerie Burnette Edgar of the Maryland State Highway Administration. “Higher snow accumulations require more plowing, less salting. The sleet, freezing rain, ice storms obviously require more salt use.”

Virginia’s Department of Transportation has used about 157,000 tons in the northern counties adjacent to the District and has 65,000 tons on hand.

“We are in very good shape,” said agency spokeswoman Joan Morris.

Morris said the agency’s storm budget for Northern Virginia is $63 million.

“We already spent $83 million,” she said, “and this could easily be a $30 million storm.”

The Montgomery Department of Transportation has spent $13 million on snow removal, of which $3 million went for salt, spokeswoman Esther Bowring said.

She said that in years such as this, the agency requests supplemental funds to cover the excess cost.

In Prince George’s, where $2.8 million was allocated for snow removal this year, the county has spent $7.4 million, officials said.

In Southern Maryland’s Charles County, $1.1 million had been spent through the most recent snowfall last week, far exceeding the $782,100 that was approved for this year’s snow-removal efforts.

Steve Staples, chief of the road division in Charles, said that preparing for the ninth storm this year requires slowing down other services, including trimming trees and cleaning ditches. And agencies have to make sure to get enough salt because demand across the region can affect deliveries.

“It has definitely been busier than other years,” Staples said. “We are on storm number nine. In years past, we have had two or three storms.” Charles is preparing for four to 10 inches of snow Wednesday night.

“We are hoping for rain,” he said.

In Richmond, the House and Senate sent their teenage pages home for the weekend, fearing that by the end of the week, parents wouldn’t be able to travel to pick them up.

“Some of them live in southwest Virginia, and we just wanted to be sure they got home safely,” said Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar. But legislators in the General Assembly, which has called only one snow day in the past 40 years, expected to work no matter what the weather is.

“We’re planning to go ahead,” Schaar said.

Lori Aratani, Mike DeBonis, Mark Berman, Donna St. George, Laura Vozzella, John Wagner, Ovetta Wiggins and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

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Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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.
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