Metro Area Feeling the Chill of Winter

Plummeting Temperatures, Stiff Winds Prompt Morning Advisory

By William Branigin and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 20, 2004; 4:02 PM

The Washington area dodged an expected snowfall today, but plummeting temperatures and stiff winds prompted the National Weather Service to issue a wind chill advisory this morning, and commuters were warned to watch out for ice on roadways.

Power outages left several thousand customers without electricity, most of them in Virginia. School openings were delayed in several Maryland counties, including Anne Arundel and Calvert, and schools were closed in the Virginia counties of Prince William and Spotsylvania.

Two men try to keep warm while standing near a steam grate in the District. As stiff winds moved into the region, temeratures plummeted into the teens. (Mark Wilson - Getty Images)

The National Weather Service canceled a winter weather advisory this morning after snow flurries last night failed to produce any significant accumulation. Winds were running 20 to 30 mph in the morning, making it feel as if the temperature was between zero and 10 degrees below, the service reported, but the winds died down a bit in the afternoon and the wind chill advisory expired at noon. Forecasters continued to warn, however, that the temperature was cold and people should take care. Wind chills into the teens were expected for the afternoon.

Temperatures overnight are expected to be slightly warmer than Monday, with wind chills forecast around zero in the suburbs and into the single digits downtown. Tomorrow is expected to be partly cloudy and warmer with highs in the lower 40s, said Steve Rogowski, a meteorologist of the National Weather Service.

"The winds should really be tapering down tonight which is good news," Rogowski said. "It's going to feel really good compared today."

In addition to the cold weather and icy patches on roads, commuters this morning had to deal with delays on several MARC trains and -- for awhile during rush hour -- on Metro's Blue and Yellow lines in the direction of Mount Vernon and Largo.

With sustained winds of 21 mph and gusts over 30 mph, wind-chill temperatures dipped to 9 degrees below zero in some places in the Washington area this morning.

By 9 a.m. today, Dominion Virginia Power was reporting that more than 19,500 customers were without power, about 4,200 of them in Northern Virginia. Most of the outages -- more than 11,200 -- were in southeastern Virginia, the utility said. Potomac Electric Power Co. said it had 140 outages in the District, Montgomery County and Prince George's County, Md., while Baltimore Gas and Electric reported more than 1,100 customers with no electricity, including 425 in Montgomery County.

Power had been restored to most of those customers by mid-afternoon.

Last night, the first snowflakes of the season blew into the region on swirls of arctic air, setting a wintry tone for a week that will end with Christmas.

After light snow had been falling for four or five hours, the largest amount reported in the area was about an inch. By and large, though, the snow did not stick.

Although falling flakes added effect, it was plummeting temperatures and rising winds that truly spelled the coming of winter.

In several areas, automobiles skidded off slick roads last night. Minor accidents littered Route 32 between Crofton and Columbia, one witness said. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge was reported closed in both directions for a time.

Slickness, ice and a lack of traction got the better of motorists in a number of spots despite numerous warnings and the efforts of hundreds of highway workers deployed throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District.

Using trucks loaded with chemicals, the workers tried to keep wet roads from becoming icy in the face of a cold front that sent frigid blasts from the far north.

At Reagan National Airport, the temperature fell almost 20 degrees in six hours yesterday, from 41 degrees at 4 p.m. to 22 degrees at 10 p.m.

By 7 p.m., winds were gusting as high as 36 mph. The wind chill at National was computed at 5 degrees at 10 p.m.

Transportation officials cautioned drivers this morning to be alert for black ice, a thin layer of ice that forms over asphalt and is hard to distinguish from wet pavement.

"People just need to slow down and be careful," said Ryan Hall, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, which is responsible for most roads in Northern Virginia. The agency dispatched 400 trucks to spread chemical de-icer on interstates and primary routes yesterday.

"No matter how long we're out there, there can always be spots that freeze up," Hall said. "In this area, it only takes one accident to make rush hour terrible. People need to be careful, give yourself plenty of room, take it down below the speed limit. Don't be in a rush. . . . If you see wet pavement, it's probably ice."

Lora Rakowski, spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, urged motorists with computer access to check www.marylandroads.com and click on "Chart" for weather information, road conditions and live cameras that show traffic flow on major roads. "It's a treasure-trove of information," she said. "It's about hitting the cyber highway before the actual highway."

Maryland called in about 170 workers and prepared 166 pieces of equipment to fight snow and ice in the Washington suburbs, Rakowski said. By 3:15 p.m. yesterday, the first crews were spraying de-icer along roads in Gaithersburg, she said, and by 7 p.m., the other crews followed. In the District, 85 workers operating 80 trucks began work at 4 p.m.

Bill Rice, spokesman for the District Department of Transportation, said crews were less concerned by snowflakes than glazed roads. Rice urged motorists to switch to mass transit for this morning's commute.

For those who must drive, Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, suggested that drivers check batteries, load up on extra windshield-wiper fluid and carry either a commercial product to de-ice locks or a small bottle of rubbing alcohol for the same purpose.

"Any time we're talking about raining and freezing, you have to think about frozen locks," said Anderson, who also cautioned against driving any vehicle that has bald tires. "This is not a time to be driving around with bald tires. Make sure you've got tires ready for this weather."

The first snowfall of the season came later than it did in 2003. Last year, the first flakes dusted the region Dec. 4, and about a half-inch fell Dec. 5, said John Darnley of the Weather Service.

Last night's rain and snow were driven by winds that originated in northern Canada and moved south across the Great Lakes, Darnley said. Some of the harsh cold will settle here briefly. Today's high is not expected to climb above the mid-20s.

Temperatures in the 50s are expected to return by Wednesday, but forecasters are warning of another mercury drop and a second opportunity for snow Friday.

Washington Post staff writers Martin Weil and Allan Lengel and washingtonpost.com's Amanda Zamora contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company