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Fickle Storm Defies Forecasts

Anger Mounts as Predictions of the Big One Melt Away

By Michael E. Ruane and Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; Page A01

The computer models could not agree. The ocean buoys clocked offshore winds that were hurricane force. One forecaster said the storm's track would be "everything." Special reconnaissance flights probed the northbound system for clues.

At 3:40 a.m. Sunday, National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Woodcock looked at the swirling combination of data and wrote: "This is definitely a tuffy."

The storm left enough behind to give this youngster in Frederick County another day off from school -- and incentive to sled through the snow-covered pines in Myersville. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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It sure was.

After a Sunday of storm-of-the-season forecasts, anticipating accumulations of as much as 10 inches, yesterday dawned with scarcely a flake. The morning rush hour came and went with no more than a dusting. By afternoon the storm -- heading from the Carolinas to New England -- was dancing up the coast, leaving in its wake confounded forecasters, disgruntled parents and defensive school officials.

Yet as the evening rush hour wound down, the storm picked up, snowing at Reagan National Airport at the rate of an inch an hour. Motorists reported that streets had suddenly turned slick and slush-coated. The National Weather Service urged motorists out at the time to exercise "extreme caution."

By 11 p.m. accumulations of five inches were reported in several places, and snow was still falling. However, highway department officials appeared optimistic about morning prospects, at least for principal commuter arteries.

Unless "we start getting inches" of additional snow, said Ryan Hall, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, "we'll be fine for rush hour."

Farther away from the District, officials decided to close schools today in Fauquier, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties.

As of late last night, snowfall readings in the metropolitan area ranged from 2.5 inches in the city to 5.7 inches in Columbia. Reported accumulations included 3.5 inches near Leesburg, 4.3 inches in Annapolis, 4.5 inches in Brookeville and 5.5 inches in Reston.

Meteorologists said most of the remnants of the storm should melt away today, leaving a partly cloudy day with scattered grumbling and temperatures in the mid-30s.

When it became clear yesterday afternoon that the storm would not reach expectations, District officials not only called off their snow emergency, but they also announced that motorists who received $250 tickets for parking along snow emergency routes would have their fines slashed to $30.

"This is in light of the fact that we didn't get any snow," Public Works Director William O. Howland Jr. said.

Parents got no such bargain. Yesterday's cancellation, coming on top of snow days on Thursday and Friday, meant that many children were home for the fifth day in a row. Monday's decision seemed hasty early in the day but wiser as snow began to fall with greater intensity later.

Still, Leon Langley, director of transportation and athletics for Calvert County schools, said he received several calls from profanity-spewing parents irate that the schools had closed based on errant predictions from meteorologists.

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