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As Usual, First Snowstorm Leaves Things a Little Flaky
Hundreds of Fender Benders And Patchy School Closings, But Most Take Squall in Stride

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The first significant snow storm of the season turned the region into a hushed, two-toned landscape yesterday filled with giddy kids off from school, skidding drivers and officials nervously eyeing the back half of a weather system that threatened to bring a second morning of challenging weather.

Late last night, the National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for inside the Capital Beltway with freezing rain expected to persist through this morning.

Several school systems in Virginia, including Loudoun and Prince William counties, canceled today's classes.

Snow gave way yesterday afternoon and evening to a mix of sleet and freezing rain. As much as a quarter-inch of ice could coat roads before the freezing rain turns to rain this morning, possibly as late as 9 a.m. around the District, the weather service said.

As for the snow, by last night about two inches had fallen across much of the area, with three inches measured in parts of Fairfax County. In the District, the snowfall was about 1 1/4 inches.

The storm came in two major waves, with snow falling steadily from 5 a.m. until about 2 or 3 p.m., then another round of wintry material starting about 4 p.m.

Given the hours of snow, traffic officials were pleased that daytime commutes proved relatively uneventful in the immediate Washington area.

However, two women were killed near Charlottesville when the vehicle in which they were riding skidded on ice on Route 29 and struck a tree, Virginia State Police said. State police also linked a fatal crash in Augusta County, Va., to the weather.

In Maryland, state police said weather appeared to contribute to a fatal crash on Rt. 15 in Frederick County, although it was not the main cause.

Closer to Washington, officers responded to hundreds of slip-and-slide fender benders on secondary roads, but there were no major accidents that police blamed on the weather.

"It was actually pretty good," said Virginia Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Salmon of the day's traffic. He credited the early deployment of salt trucks for the relatively safe conditions on major roads. The department ran more than 1,000 salt and sand trucks during the day and planned to operate all night, Salmon said, and would be concentrating on commuter parking lots along interstates 95 and 66 in advance of this morning's rush. "We'll be ready."

With the forecast calling for a night of freezing rain to follow the snow, school officials said they would evaluate road conditions and decide before dawn whether to call off classes for a second day. A winter storm warning was in effect until noon today in Montgomery, Loudoun, Howard and Fauquier counties, and there is a winter weather advisory in the rest of the region. Temperatures were expected to climb above freezing soon after sunrise.

The arrival of snow -- long-awaited by students, dreaded by scrambling parents and uncertain drivers -- was the first noteworthy snowfall in more than a year. By midmorning, hundreds of snow-starved residents had pulled sleds and snow boots from closet and headed into the chill.

"It just seems like we've been a couple of years without one of these," said Brooks Boliek, whose children were among more than 30 sledders on a hill behind Takoma Park Middle School. "I welcome it. It's a relief to get them outside instead of just killing aliens on the TV screen."

If conditions weren't perfect -- "Too wet for snowmen," declared Aaralyn Mills of Silver Spring -- they still created spectacular snowscapes across the region. Along the banks of Sligo Creek, Mills marveled at towering leafless oaks iced in white and dripping sparkles at every breeze.

"It's just beautiful," said Mills, who was pushing her 10-month-old daughter in a blanket-draped stroller as her two nephews practiced snow angels and threw handfuls of snow at each other.

Fairfax County tallied about 300 accidents before noon. Virginia State Police reported about 10 minor crashes an hour on area interstates, spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.

By noon, Charles County seemed to lead the region with 105 weather-related calls, from minor collisions to getting stuck.

"To say we're busy would be an understatement," said Charles County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Diane Richardson.

Sheriff's deputies in Calvert and St. Mary's counties responded to more than 60 weather-related traffic incidents, including two school bus crashes in St. Mary's, authorities said.

No one was seriously injured in either of those crashes, and kids were on the bus in just one of them, officials said.

Many area schools closed yesterday before the first buses rolled, including those in Montgomery, Howard and Loudoun counties. Other jurisdictions, including Prince George's, St. Mary's and Calvert counties, tried to hold classes but ended up sending students home early.

"We try to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time," said J. Bradley Clements, chief operating officer for the St. Mary's school system.

Clements said that when he and other officials made the decision about 4:30 a.m. to hold school, St. Mary's was not even included in the weather advisory and was only expected to receive a half-inch.

The return of winter weather immediately resurrected venerable snow-day traditions, from raiding grocery stores for milk and bread to complaining about the habit of canceling school at the first sign of a flake.

Staff writers Daniel de Vise, Nelson Hernandez, Tom Jackman, Jenna Johnson, Theresa Vargas, Martin Weil and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

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