A fast-moving snow storm swept through the Washington region this afternoon, bringing heavy snow, hazardous driving conditions, and cancellations of exams and events by the hundreds. It also disrupted air traffic crossing through the nation's mid-section.
The National Weather Service predicted that between four to seven inches will have fallen by night's end. The storm warning extends through 7 a.m. Sunday.
A Washingtonian uses cross-country skis as snow falls at the Capitol Building.
(Jason Reed - Reuters)
However, compared to points west and north, the Washington region got off relatively easy. The snow here is part of a larger, more powerful system that moved through the Midwest and into New England.
New York and nearby New Jersey were particularly hard hit with 18 inches in some areas. At one point, New York's John F. Kennedy Airport was shut to all traffic because a cargo plane skidded off the runway. Some 400 flights in and out of Chicago's O'Hare Field were cancelled.
Numerous flights into the Washington area from the West were diverted temporarily into cities such as Nashville, leaving lots of people waiting around local airports for arriving friends and relatives.
In the Washington area, the weather service said that the snow would continue along the I-95 corridor through this evening, with scattered snow showers and minor accumulations overnight as well as some sleet in southern Maryland.
Locally, slick roads and poor visibility contributed to numerous accidents.
The city and most counties in the region declared snow emergencies, requiring vehicles to park away from major snow routes to permit plowing and road treatment.
Law enforcement authorities as well as the weather service advised motorists to stay off the highways entirely, reporting that some drivers were becoming hazards themselves by stopping on highways to clear off their windshields.
Driving was laborious anyway. It took one motorist an hour and 40 minutes during the mid afternoon to get from Reston to the Rosslyn-Arlington area, about five times longer than usual. I-66 inside the Beltway ranged from wet but clear to snow packed, depending on the course of the plows.
At mid-afternoon, the Dulles Toll Road had been plowed but later accumulation slowed traffic to about 20 miles per hour. There were huge delays at one point this afternoon where the Toll Road met I-66 and lesser delays at other major on/off ramps.
Smaller major roads, such as Route 29 (the Lee Highway) and the Reston Parkway were snow-covered and treacherous.
Sidestreets were best left to skiers.
The speed of the storm appeared, for the moment, to be limiting the accumulation. "The bulk" will move through the region by this evening, said weather service technician Katrina Heiser, noting the storm's rapid pace.
"I think we're going to dodge the bullet" in terms of truly massive accumulations, said Richard Shelton, emergency operations team leader for the Maryland State Highway Administration. "A lot of it is going north of us."
For a time, however, snowfall rates of two to three inches per hour were common.
"This is a significant winter storm," said a weather service statement. "Travel Saturday and Saturday night is strongly discouraged."
Locally, almost everything that could be cancelled was cancelled including SAT exams almost everywhere but Montgomery County. Brian Edwards, spokesman for Montgomery County Schools, said that county officials allowed all "community use" activities before 1 p.m. to go ahead. Everything after 1 p.m. when the heaviest snow arrived was cancelled.
School officials in the other jurisdictions advised students to check on SAT rescheduling.
Today's snowstorm also led to the cancellation of the reopening of Laurel Park racetrack, wire services reported.
The racetrack had been closed for a 10-month renovation that included the widening of both racing surfaces. The jockey club's Chief Operating Officer, Lou Raffetto, says it's disappointing because officials had been looking forward to the grand reopening for quite a while. Raffetto says the track will be protected from the storm and remain in great shape.
Regionally, the weather service's winter storm warning was scheduled to remain in effect through 7 a.m. Sunday. Total accumulation was expected to be heaviest towards the south, near Charlottesville and in St. Mary's County, Md., where up to one-quarter inch of ice was possible.
The weather service also advised that very cold temperatures could result in bitter cold wind chills across the region.
All D.C. area jurisdictions had road crews deployed by late this morning, starting with major routes first.
Metro officials ran a normal Saturday schedule but cautioned that electronic equipment under trains could malfunction later if a worst-case scenario eight or more inches of snow occurs. Some trains will have ice scrapers to help keep the rails clear, and heated cables will be clipped onto parts of the rails to keep them warm a new technique that has been used successfully several times this year, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.
Also new this winter: The first 16 seats in a small number of trains will be blocked off to make room for tanks that hold de-icing chemicals, Farbstein said. A tube from the tanks leads outside, where the chemicals are sprayed onto the third rail to keep electricity flowing. A technician will be on hand to make sure everything goes smoothly, she said.
"The de-icing units are neither dangerous or flammable," Farbstein said, adding that people who don't wish to be near them should not board the front car.
A large number of bus routes were altered because of difficult conditions.
The Districts snow emergency was declared at 8 a.m. today as planned. District Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Rice reminded motorists that vehicles parked along snow emergency routes, which are marked by red and white signs, will be towed to a nearby location so that crews can plow the streets. Motorists who ignore the signs might face a $250 fine.
Nationally, storm warnings were posted from Wisconsin to New England, where the National Weather Service posted a blizzard warning in effect through Sunday. Snow fell through Wisconsin, Illinois and into Pennsylvania.
Before the day is out, more than a foot is expected in the Midwest and Great Lakes area with up to 20 inches in New England.
New York was hit hard.
Wire services reported that midtown Manhattan is a virtual ghost town.
A blizzard warning is in effect through Sunday there and through the northeast states, from New Jersey north to Vermont. Even before the first flakes started falling around noon in Manhattan, officials warned that conditions could become life-threatening at the height of the blizzard, said the Associated Press.
Forecasters predicted winds could max out at 50 mph, with the wind chill dropping to minus-8 degrees in New York and New Jersey.
The city has cancelled all vacations for its sanitation workers and called people in on their days off to handle the blizzard. At Kennedy International Airport, snow melters capable of liquefying 500 tons of snow an hour are at the ready but that was not enough to keep up a normal schedule.
At Kennedy and Newark airports, there are minimal delays but dozens of cancellations, according to Port Authority spokesman Alan Hicks. LaGuardia Airport has delays of up to an hour on all flights, and nearly 200 cancellations by 2 p.m.