Washington area prepares for biggest snowfall in six years

By Michael E. Ruane and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009; B01

A major storm was expected to bury the Washington region Saturday with what forecasters said was likely to be the largest snowfall here in six years and the greatest December accumulation in more than 70 years.

By 9 p.m., Friday, snow was falling fast in the District and many other parts of the Washington area. Snow blanketed the tops of cars parked on city streets.

Accumulations of five inches or more were reported south and west of the city as the storm, which covered most of Virginia and much of Maryland, swept northeastward. The worst was yet to come, the National Weather Service said in an updated storm warning at 9 p.m.

A blizzard warning was issued shortly after 11 p.m. for Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Calvert counties. Strong winds, blowing snow and whiteout conditions were likely, the Weather Service said.

Snow was expected to be heaviest from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, according to the Weather Service, which predicted accumulations of one to two feet, even within the Capital Beltway.

"Conditions will deteriorate very rapidly Saturday morning," the Weather Service warned, and "will make travel extremely treacherous."

The snow was expected to cause significant disruptions for shoppers, travelers and revelers on the last weekend -- and biggest shopping day -- before Christmas.

Especially large amounts of snow could accumulate southeast of the Interstate 95 corridor, where "paralyzing" conditions could occur, said AccuWeather.com chief meteorologist Joe Bastardi.

Severe highway, rail and air travel disruptions were anticipated. Some airlines were canceling flights Friday, and authorities urged people to stay off the roads. Southwest Airlines said it was allowing customers using six East Coast airports to rebook tickets without penalties.

A state of emergency was declared in Virginia, where the National Guard was on alert to help with emergency transportation. In the District, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) declared a snow emergency, effective at 7 a.m. Saturday. All vehicles must be removed from the city's snow routes or they will be ticketed and towed.

Local government facilities were to be closed Saturday. Many weekend functions at schools were postponed. Emergency road and utility crews were deployed.

"There may not be that much snow on the ground when you wake up," said weather service meteorologist Bryan Jackson. "But travel conditions will be rapidly degrading."

Saturday "is not a day for Christmas shopping," he said.

The storm, spawned in the Gulf of Mexico and centered over the Atlantic Ocean as it heads up the coast, is a northeaster, bringing winds out of the northeast, meteorologists said.

Experts said the storm could produce the most significant snowfall to hit the area since Feb. 15-18 of 2003, when more than 16 inches fell across the region. It also could be the biggest December storm in Washington since at least 1932, when 12 inches fell Dec. 17, the Weather Service said.

"This is a big-time snow for December," said Dan Stillman, lead meteorologist for the Capital Weather Gang, the weather team at http://washingtonpost.com.

"We're looking at a general 8 to 16 inches across the metropolitan area," Stillman said. "The jackpot for this storm is going to be just south and east of the District, with a sort of long southwest-to-northeast swath" where 22 inches of snow, perhaps more in spots, could accumulate.

Across the area Friday, residents scrambled to prepare or escape. Christmas procrastinators hurried out to do what had been put off until Saturday.

The frenzy at a supermarket near the Potomac Avenue SE Metro stop "was insane," said one post on the Capital Weather Gang blog. From the crush at the commissary at Fort Belvoir, "you'd think the end was coming," another post said. A food store in Alexandria's West End was characterized as "a chaotic mess."

Washington's Union Station was abuzz Friday with large crowds and long lines.

Cornelia Robertson Terry, 66, a retired federal worker from Rockville, was headed to Danville, Va. "I am afraid of the snow," she said. "I am afraid of driving. "

Rocio Blanco, 39, of the District, who was headed to New York, said she tried to get a ticket on a 1 p.m. train Friday but it was sold out. She settled for a 6 p.m. train. she said. "A little late, but I guess it is a little crazy today."

Staff writers Sholnn Freeman, Megan Greenwell, Nikita Stewart and Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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