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Trace of Snow Ruins Rush Hour

Some School Districts Admit Underestimating Road Conditions

By John F. Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2004; Page B01

Though it was better measured with a microscope than a yardstick, a tiny snowfall yesterday managed to cause big problems across the Washington area.

The dusting -- no more than half an inch in most parts of the region -- fell on freezing roadways, glazing many of them with a layer of ice. It was enough to send vehicles pirouetting into ditches, telephone poles and each other.

Cars slid off icy Lincoln Avenue in Annandale, one of the many accidents that occurred after a dusting of snow fell on freezing roads. (Photos James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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That such a minuscule amount of snow could wreak such havoc was the fault of an unfortunate collection of circumstances, starting with temperatures in the mid-20s, said National Weather Service meteorologist Christopher Strong.

In addition, commuters' cars were complicit in their own doom.

"The pressure of the tires melts that little bit of snow," Strong said. "And temperatures are so cold, it refreezes instantly into a glaze of ice. Anytime you have a glaze of ice on the roadway, it's a bad situation. Add in that people don't expect a minor amount of snow to be a problem, and it just goes badly."

The morning commute was a fender bender-filled mess. Metrobus routes were altered as their drivers bypassed accidents and iced-in neighborhoods. Even subway riders were affected. A section of the Orange Line was closed until 7:30 a.m. after an SUV hit a patch of ice on Interstate 66, went through a fence and landed astride the tracks between the East and West Falls Church Metro stations.

And in what might best be filed in the "you can't please everybody" category, local school systems, routinely criticized for shutting down in the face of a few inches of snow, got grief for staying open with just a fraction of that on the ground.

Fairfax School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech decided at 5 a.m. that the snow was not serious enough to delay school. By midmorning, he admitted that he had made a mistake.

"It was a bad call," he said on WTOP radio. Instead, he said, he should have imposed a two-hour delay. The school district then engaged in a rare display of self-flagellation, with Domenech's apology posted on the district's Web site, e-mailed to parents and broadcast throughout the region.

In Upper Marlboro, Cynthia Mason-Posey's two children -- a seventh-grader at Thomas G. Pullen School and a 10th-grader at Suitland High School -- were each picked up an hour late by their school buses, although schools were scheduled to open on time.

"If they knew that the roads were that icy, they should have done a delayed opening," Mason-Posey said.

Prince George's school officials said they didn't know the roads would be that icy.

"With what we had at that hour of the day, the information coming to us from both our weather services and the surrounding systems, pretty much we made the right call," said Tony Liberatore, chief administrator for supporting services.

But Michael A. Dodson, transportation director for Prince George's schools, said: "If I had to do [it] all over again, I probably would have had supervisors give me more of an extensive assessment of what they saw at that time . . . It was a very difficult morning, no doubt about it."

In Prince William, Associate Superintendent for Management Robert Ferrebee's first recommendation was to push forward with a two-hour delay. But throughout the morning, he got more calls from his staff saying that a closing might be necessary.

Ferrebee didn't see why until he drove to his office. The road "was like a ski slope," he said. "It took me an hour and a half to get from Haymarket to the offices" -- normally a 20-minute trip. He closed schools for the day, and Prince William students got an early start to the weekend.

The D.C. Department of Transportation had 15 salt trucks on the streets overnight, spokesman Bill Rice said, then dispatched about 40 more when the snow began falling in earnest about 5 a.m. There were delays on many major roads, including Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues NW and Canal Road NW. D.C. police closed Bladensburg Road NE at Mount Olivet Road while they awaited salt trucks.

The micro-snow had one benefit, said Joan Morris, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation: "Everyone was at a crawl, and that probably prevented a lot more accidents."

Staff writers David A. Fahrenthold, Joshua Partlow, Linda Perlstein, Christina A. Samuels, Liz Seymour, Leef Smith, Jamie Stockwell and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company