By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009 9:58 AM
Lingering ice on secondary roads and an abundance of caution prompted suburban school districts to delay opening by two hours this morning.
Major roadways were clear and no major incidents were reported as the morning commute began, though ice and slush still covered some side roads and sidewalks. Temperatures were expected to reach into the upper 30s under clear skies, helping melt any ice that formed again overnight.
The Washington region survived its first winter storm of the season with little more than crumpled fenders and a few bones broken from icy falls. Schoolchildren enjoyed some time off even if there wasn't much snow to play in.
The lights stayed on yesterday and the major roadways stayed open.
"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.
The mountains contribute to the problem because northeast winds often trap a shallow layer of cold air against the eastern side of the Appalachians -- in other words, over the Washington region. Then warmer air coming from the west or south slices across the top of the trapped air. Suddenly, there is a blanket of warm air between the snow-laden clouds and the cold air below them.
The result is ice. As some people painfully found out yesterday.
At George Washington University Hospital, a spokeswoman said a half-dozen people came into the emergency room during the morning with a variety of weather-related injuries, including injured shoulders and sore wrists.
At Inova Fairfax Hospital, most of the emergency room patients, more than 20 people, blamed the weather for their injuries, Inova spokesman Che Parker said.
"Bumps, bruises, some back pain, broken bones," Parker said. "And a lot of it has been wrist injuries, too, from people trying to brace themselves from falling."
Inova Alexandria Hospital saw 23 weather-related injuries, about a third of the emergency room traffic, and Inova Mount Vernon saw seven. Potomac Hospital in Woodbridge reported a slight increase in orthopedic injuries. At Prince William Hospital, spokeswoman Donna Ballou counted 10 ice-related injuries, all minor sprains or broken bones.
In Annapolis, state Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) took an early-morning spill on an icy sidewalk near the State House and was sent to the emergency room for treatment of an injured back. "It was like glass," said Frosh, who was back in his office later in the morning.
Police across the area reported accidents, many of them on side streets where braking cars slid into one another, bending fenders but causing few serious injuries.
Police are investigating whether weather conditions contributed to two accidents in Prince George's County yesterday.
Nine people were hurt in a five-vehicle crash in District Heights about 2:50 p.m., authorities said. Three people trapped in one car had serious injuries, and six other people were hurt less seriously, said Mark Brady, spokesman for the Prince George's Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.
The accident occurred in a steady rain at Pennsylvania Avenue and Silver Hill Road.
Maryland State Police are investigating a crash in which a tractor-trailer loaded with cow manure overturned on the inner loop of the Capital Beltway about 2:30 a.m. The driver, who lost control of the truck near Forestville, was injured and in stable condition, police said.
A county hazmat team cleaned up the manure and about 200 gallons of diesel fuel that were spilled in the crash, Brady said.
The Loudoun County Sheriff's Office said it responded to 19 weather-related crashes yesterday. The crashes were classified as "property damage" incidents, meaning vehicles slid into other vehicles or into guardrails.
On Dallas Avenue in Silver Spring, Pat Giblin inspected the small scrapes a bus made on his side mirror when it slid to a halt inches from the body of his Toyota Camry. He summed up the damage -- and the day: "It could have been a lot worse."
Staff writers Lori Aratani, Jennifer Buske, Aaron C. Davis, Steve Hendrix, Tom Jackman, Jonathan Mummolo, John Wagner, Josh White and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.