Snowstorm Pummels Washington Area
By John Nichols, Jay Mathews and Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 16, 2003; 7:07 PM
A thick layer of dry, grainy snow engulfed Washington today, snarling traffic, closing airports, shutting churches and museums, sending homeowners out repeatedly to shovel and delighting children heading for the sledding hills.
The National Weather Service reported that 10 to 16 inches of snow had fallen by midday across the region, with the northern and western areas around the city being hit the hardest. Snow was coming down at a rate of about an inch an hour this morning, and heavy snows were expected to continue throughout the day and into tomorrow. The National Weather Service said the area could get as much as two feet of snow by the time the storm tapers off on Monday.
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and city officials in the District of Columbia have all declared a state of emergency. That allows extra state resources, including National Guard troops, to be used to help citizens if necessary.
Traffic officials were urging people to stay home, and many activities in the area were canceled and businesses and museums closed.
The local snow was part of a massive storm system that stretched from Missouri to the East Coast and from northern Florida to New England. But the mid-Atlantic states were taking much of the brunt of the storm.
The effect of the snow was mitigated because the area was geared up for a three-day Washington's Birthday holiday weekend. Many area employees were not scheduled to work Sunday or Monday, and officials hoped that if they stayed home, the cleanup could go more quickly. A number of local school systems, however, had planned to hold classes tomorrow to help make up one of the days lost earlier in the year to bad weather. But Fairfax and Prince William counties announced this afternoon that they will be forced to close tomorrow.
Metro was running but trains are operating on a two hour schedule on Sunday and
will open at 8:00 a.m. Monday and run every 30 minutes. Metro officials said buses
were trying to provide service on the main arteries but not side streets.
Officials for Virginia Railway Express and the MARC trains in Maryland also announced that service would be canceled on Monday.
The snow was accompanied by very cold temperatures and brisk breezes. Steve Zubrick of the National Weather Service said temperatures would remain in the mid-teens today. He said that sleet could be mixing in with the snow later today, thus knocking down the accumulation totals.
Still, the snow depths were forecast to be greater than anything seen here in several years. Zubrick said accumulations are expected to be between 16 and 24 inches. Already, snow totals of about a foot were common. By early afternoon, the District had nearly 11 inches, as did Fairfax and Prince George's counties and Alexandria, according to John Newkirk of the National Weather Service. Parts of Montgomery County were reporting as much as 16 inches and Ashburn in Loudoun County also had a 16 inch total, he said.
The record for Washington is 28 inches in a storm, he said.
Reagan National Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport closed this morning, but officials at Dulles were trying to keep at least one runway open. They urged passengers to call ahead before attempting to go to the airport.
Amtrak reported that service between Washington and Boston was continuing but most trains from Washington south to Florida were canceled. Also, Train 51 that runs from Washington to Chicago, also known as the Cardinal, was canceled because of flash flood in the Ohio Valley. Passengers were advised to call 800-872-7245 to check their train's departure information.
Cancellations were reported all around the Washington region. For the first time since 1996 – when Washington was pummelled by a 17-inch snowstorm – the Smithsonian, the National Zoo, the monuments and memorials were closed. Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas told the Associated Press that officials were concerned about being able to clear the entrances and getting people in and out of the buildings safely.
Tonight's basketball game between 16th-ranked Maryland and 15th-ranked Wake Forest has also been postponed. A makeup date has not been scheduled, although officials from both schools and the Atlantic Coast Conference said they hope the game can be played Monday evening.
President Bush headed home from Camp David in rural Maryland early today, but the storm forced him to travel by car instead of helicopter. The trip, normally a 90-minute drive, took about 2 1/2 hours. A half dozen snow plows cleared I-270 about 15 minutes before the presidential motorcade came through, but White House officials said the road work was unrelated to Bush's travels.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who was spending the weekend in Puerto Rico, also was attempting to get back to Washington. His spokesman Tony Bullock told the Associated Press that Williams was hoping to fly to New York this afternoon and be back in Washington by evening. Former mayor Marion Barry suffered politically for being in California attending the Super Bowl during a January 1987 snowstorm when cleanup efforts faltered. But officials said they were confident they would get the job done today even if Williams has trouble getting home.
Maryland and Virginia road officials said the situation was getting tougher as the storm intensified today. They urged people to stay home to let the crews handle the roads more effectively.
Dave Buck of the Maryland Department of Transportation said today that there was "limited visibility" on local roads. "The traffic is still moving pretty solidly all over the area," he said. "Visibility isn't necessarily a factor but when the wind picks up that is when we have a problem. This is in every sense of the word an emergency."
Buck added that snow removal crews were aided by the light traffic patterns today. "It helps it's the weekend and the holiday tomorrow. . . . " he said, but added, "Common sense would dictate to stay off the road."
Maryland has about 2,200 workers clearing the roads around the state, he said.
Ryan Hall, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the state had more than 1,600 trucks and 2,000 employees working 12 hour shifts today trying to clear the main roads. He said the crews are hampered because the wind is causing the snow to drift.
"We have our work cut out for us and the crews are working in patterns," he said. "We are getting hammered by the snow."
He urged drivers not to try to pass the plows since often the work in tandem.
Today's snow was the second part of two-punch storm. An initial storm that began here Friday brought a total of five inches of snow to Dulles International Airport by last evening. Much of the snow that fell over the past two days melted on roads, but surfaces began to freeze as daylight ended yesterday and about 30 collisions in which people were injured were reported in Montgomery County between 4 and 8 p.m., officials said.
The snow halted briefly last night, with about three inches measured in much of Montgomery and Fairfax counties. But overnight, huge amounts of moisture were funneled into the teeth of arctic air here today, providing all that is required for a major snowstorm, the weather service said.
Weather forecasters said the slow pace of the storm would account for the unusually high precipitation totals. It had been predicted previously that the storm would have blown out to sea by early tomorrow, but later forecasts suggested that it would stick around.
Today's precipitation, linked to the same weather system that poured rain on Los Angeles last week, marked the 12th day since December that snowfall has been recorded at Reagan National Airport, a Weather Service spokesman said.
Nichols is a reporter for washingtonpost.com. Washington Post staff writers Martin Weil and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.
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