Utilities Crews on High Alert for Later Today

Sophia Skelton, 2, and her father, Matthew, visiting from Chapel Hill, N.C., view Great Falls from the Maryland side of the Potomac River.
Sophia Skelton, 2, and her father, Matthew, visiting from Chapel Hill, N.C., view Great Falls from the Maryland side of the Potomac River. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Michael E. Ruane and Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A dangerous winter storm brought a mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain to the Washington area yesterday, and the National Weather Service said that the region might face severe and disruptive icing by this morning.

The Weather Service predicted last night that the area would have the most significant accumulation of ice on roads and trees since the ice storm of 1999. Thousands of people lacked power for days afterward.

As it moved into the area yesterday, the massive storm prompted schools across the region to close early, and Virginia declared a statewide emergency. The federal government also dismissed employees early, as did many county governments. The unexpected federal dismissals sped up the onset of the evening rush, creating conditions of near-chaos as crowds in Metro stations swelled and roads became clogged.

Hundreds of flights at the area's three major airports were canceled last night, and more could be canceled this morning.

As of late last night, public school closures had been announced for today in Prince William, Stafford, Fauquier and Culpeper counties and in Manassas City.

And based on last night's forecast, it appeared that the full effects of the storm were yet to be felt. Forecasters said the latest observations showed "very high probabilities" that more than half an inch of ice would coat most of the metropolitan area.

That much ice, utility company officials say, heightens the risk of heavy damage to the area's electrical grid. It causes tree limbs and branches to fall and wires to snap. The Weather Service said the amount of ice expected had "the potential for widespread power outages."

It also said that data showed a "big slug of moisture" heading toward the region and that cold air, needed to convert the moisture into ice, was "firmly in place."

Freezing rain, which is anticipated today, is rain that turns to ice upon contact with cold ground.

Throughout much of yesterday, what came down was a combination of every form of winter precipitation. Such a mix happens when precipitation falls through layers of warm and cold air to become snow, sleet or rain before hitting the ground, meteorologists said. Washington is at a crossroads of such air temperatures.

In declaring an emergency, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) alerted state agencies to "take all necessary actions" to respond to the weather. That authorizes state emergency management officials to speed assistance in the event of storm-related damage. The order included a deployment of 150 National Guard troops to be ready to assist state emergency personnel. The state Department of Forestry positioned crews with chain saws in critical locations.

In the District, crowds jammed downtown Metro stops as federal workers flooded stations to get home. Incoming trains sounded their horns.

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