Winter Storm Lands Glancing, Glazing Blow

The region copes with the season's first round of sleet, freezing rain and ice after Tuesday's snowfall.
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Washington region survived its first winter storm of the season with crumpled fenders, a few bones broken by icy falls and schoolchildren enjoying some time off even if there wasn't much snow to play in.

The lights stayed on yesterday, the major roadways stayed open and weather forecasters said sunshine would return today, melting any ice that formed again overnight.

"As ice storms go, this didn't pack a lot of punch," said Dave Buck of the Maryland State Highway Administration. "The biggest problem was chipping the ice off your car windows and getting out of your parking space."

Buck and his Virginia counterpart, Joan Morris of the Virginia Department of Transportation, said road crews would remain on duty through the night to ensure that the roads are clear of ice for this morning's commute.

The region's two major power companies -- Dominion Virginia Power and Pepco -- said the storm, which arrived as snow Tuesday and turned to ice by yesterday morning, was a weakling.

"There was no real ice to bring down trees or wires," said Bob Dobkin of Pepco. "It's been a fairly mild winter so far, but it isn't over."

The ice may not have been thick yesterday, but there was plenty of it, especially early.

In Silver Spring, Gino Bardini, 71, was up before sunrise, watching drivers slide along on Kinross Avenue. "They've been spinning all over the place," Bardini said as he walked carefully along a street that was glazed with a shiny veneer. "We only had one salt truck, and that was yesterday morning. . . . Today, I go nowhere."

The threat of a disastrous ice storm, like the one in 1999 that left 400,000 customers in the dark for five days, is a source of dread but also a fact of winter in the Washington area because of its geographical configuration.

The blizzards that torment the Midwest and delight New England skiers often arrive here as sleet and freezing rain, although temperatures like those during the recent cold spell seem low enough to entertain snow.

But the cold air to our north and west is deeper, and snow requires the air to be below freezing from the cloud level to the ground. But if there are several layers with different temperatures -- a freezing layer, a warmer level and a second freezing layer -- the snow falling from the clouds melts when it hits the warm air. Then it either refreezes into sleet at the second level of cold air or falls as rain that turns to ice when it makes contact with the frozen ground.

That's what happened yesterday. Blame it on the Appalachian Mountains.

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