A late winter storm drove across the Washington region Wednesday, delivering the biggest snowfall of the season in the higher elevations west of the city, a slushy mix to streets in and around the Capital Beltway, and a heavy dose of rain to the east.
After days of warnings, and watching the storm blast through the Midwest, the region was hunkered down and ready when it arrived in the early hours. Schools closed, employers offered lots of slack for most of those who wanted to stay home, highway crews were ready to jump into action and power companies had summoned help from out of state.
In some parts of the region, that proved prudent planning; in others, it caused a day to be wasted for no real weather reason.
Meteorologists said that’s the price of living on a weather fault line.
“It’s always been [the forecast that] the rain-snow line was going to be right around the D.C. and Baltimore metro area,” said Chris Strong of the National Weather Service office in Sterling. “And those on the rain side were going to be left lacking snowfall, and those on the other side were going to get quite a few inches.”
The real snow fell in outer western suburbs such as Leesburg.
“It’s a perfect snow day,” said Anthony Ciravolo, 37, as he and his 5-year-old son, Isaac, gleefully tossed snowballs at each other in between sledding runs in Ida Lee Park. “There’s a lot of snow.”
The heavy snow arrived suddenly in the Foggy Bottom area of the District about 8:20 a.m. Big, fat flakes in swirling clouds cut visibility so sharply that the skyline of Rosslyn could no longer be seen from the D.C. side of the Potomac.
A few indefatigable joggers ran on the paved path that borders the river. And to underscore the fluctuations in the storm’s intensity, when the size and number of the flakes diminished, the towers of Rosslyn reappeared, perhaps 10 minutes after they had seemingly vanished.
That same uncertainty of the storm’s intent touched Matthew Brower, owner of Grounds Central Station coffee shop on Main Street in Manassas, as the streets and sidewalks turned slushy with about an inch of snow.
“I thought about closing,” Brower said. “But I had nothing else to do. If I’m going to be watching TV all day, I might as well be watching it here.”
The roads got slushy in Rockville by late morning, where Lauren Fiske sipped hot chocolate in a Starbucks off Seven Locks Road. A doctor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, she had been out early for several hours checking on her patients. She intended to be home within the hour.
“I don’t think many people in Maryland know how to drive in snow,” she said with a laugh.
But what threatened as a bad dose of January winter turned into a typical early March day for most of the Washington region — a trail of wet, sloppy snow, wind-driven rain and general grumpiness that will be erased from memory when spring arrives in a couple of weeks.
By nightfall Wednesday, the best post-storm barometer for the region — the number of power outages — told the day’s tale. In Northern Virginia, extending beyond Washington’s suburbs, 10,700 outages were reported as of 9 p.m. Closer to Washington, nearly 3,700 houses and businesses were without power in Fauquier County, and 1,700 in Fairfax. Only a few dozen outages were reported in the District and the Maryland suburbs.
George Nelson, Pepco’s chief of operations, said crews arrived from Georgia and Alabama but would find no work to be done in the District or Maryland, where Pepco provides power.
“We’ll give them their hotel assignments and dinner,” he said. “They probably want to spend the night before they start driving back.”
A torrent of public kvetching began even before the last celestial downpour ended. Some flogged their weatherman by name, others lashed the entire profession for disrupting life with what turned out to be — for many people — too much ado about too little.
Wednesday’s quasi-winter storm was a textbook example of life on a weather fault line, where the vagaries of Mother Nature can turn a weather forecast on its head. Four months after Hurricane Sandy got a last-minute shove off its course toward Washington, a skinny few degrees in temperature saved the region from what might have been the season’s worst winter weather.
To the far west, in a loosely defined region twice the width of Rhode Island, close to a foot of snow fell. Inside the Beltway, a few sloppy inches came down here and there. To the east, gusty winds drove a pelting rain.
It had been hard to predict all week, said Jason Samenow of the Capital Weather Gang.
“You have the ocean to the east, you have the mountains to the west and D.C. is sort of in that transition zone,” he said. “In many winter storms, we’re right near the freezing line, which makes it difficult to know exactly what type of precipitation we’re going to get.”
Another factor is the urban heat island, he said.
“The asphalt and concrete absorb extra heat, and temperatures are a little bit warmer in the urban core,” he said. “If you do have snow falling, it has a more difficult time accumulating.”
With above-freezing temperatures and partly sunny skies forecast Thursday for the western reaches where most of the snow fell, flooding was a possibility.
On Wednesday evening, the federal government announced that offices will be open Thursday. Plans for the region’s schools were a mixed bag. The District said its schools will be open, while officials in Manassas and in Prince William and Fauquier counties said their schools will be closed Thursday. Other systems had yet to announce their plans for Thursday.
Fairfax County’s emergency coordinator said there had been power outages and a few accidents on the roads but no major damage caused by the wet, heavy snow.
“It’s pretty much a routine day,” David McKernan said.
Metrobus ridership Wednesday was much lower than on a typical weekday, as expected with all the closures, Metro officials said.
Although hundreds of flights were canceled before the storm, many travelers at area airports were able to get out.
“Airlines are just being cautious,’’ said Kimberly Gibbs, spokeswoman for Reagan National and Dulles International airports. “They don’t want to bring planes into an area where they might not be able to get out.”
By late afternoon Wednesday, fat snowflakes had long since changed to a driving rain in the District. The wind blew sheets of water across the plaza in front of the National Museum of the American Indian and sent the windmills into a whirling blur at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Federal buildings were all but dark — just a few fluorescent ceiling panels glowed here and there — and the American Indian museum was quiet.
From an upper floor, much of the Mall was visible — barren, wet and gray, with just one man out there, hurrying, head down, soaking wet, across the street.
A tourist from Germany was delighted.
“I braced for crowds!” Rainer Manheim said, sweeping his arms around the almost-empty atrium. “My friends said expect lots of lines, or it can be hard to get close to see the exhibits in Washington. This is perfect. It’s a private showing!”