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Massive storm sets December record, cripples transit

The storm that pummeled the Washington area Dec. 19 is the largest one-day snow in more than 70 years. As much as two feet of snow buried some parts of the region.

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By Carol Morello and Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009

A major storm that broke all records for a December snowfall buried the Washington area Saturday, forcing authorities to suspend public transportation, declare a state of emergency and plead with residents to stay home.

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Hundreds of airline flights were canceled, Metro stopped running trains to aboveground stations and shopping malls closed early because few customers could navigate treacherous roads to get there on the last weekend before Christmas.

But at 10 p.m. Saturday, it appeared that the fury of the great storm might be fading into flurries. Over the next two hours, "any additional accumulation will be light," the National Weather Service said.

Yet, it will be days before things return to normal. Metro said the suspension of bus and aboveground rail service, which went into effect Saturday, would continue Sunday morning when the system reopened.

One school system, Loudoun County, announced that schools will not reopen until Jan. 4, after the winter break that was to begin Wednesday. Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William, Prince George's and Montgomery county schools canceled activities and closed buildings for the weekend. District schools are already on break.

Runways at Ronald Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport were to be closed until 6 a.m. Sunday. Airport officials said they did not know how many flights would operate Sunday. They advised passengers to check with the airlines. Dozens of churches and other houses of worship announced the cancellation of Sunday services.

Delays are widespread. The Baltimore Ravens' home game Sunday against the Chicago Bears was moved from 1 to 4:15 p.m. to give workers more time to clear snow before fans tried to make their way to M&T Bank Stadium. The Washington Redskins announced that they are bringing in 1,200 workers to remove an estimated 25 million pounds of snow from FedEx Field and its parking lots before Monday night's game.

The District plans to put the Circulator bus back into service two hours late on Sunday, starting at 9 a.m. instead of 7, to allow sufficient time to clear the routes.

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said residential streets will not be plowed before Monday. District officials said 80 plows dedicated to neighborhood roads have already made one sweep and will return once the snow stops.

Federal officials, like their counterparts at most county and municipal offices, expect to decide during early conference calls Monday whether to open government offices or grant liberal leave to employees.

The storm began in the Gulf of Mexico and continued northeast along a track meteorologists call an "I-95 special," growing most intense over the Washington area. New York and Boston also had heavy snowfall, but by the time the storm reached that area, its heart was over the ocean so those cities received less snow than the mid-Atlantic region.

At the snowstorm's peak in the afternoon, flakes fell at the rate of two inches an hour. Some areas, particularly in Southern Maryland, experienced wind gusts up to 40 mph. The total measured snowfall at Reagan Airport at 8:58 p.m. was 16.3 inches, but it was as high as 23 inches elsewhere in the region. That would be more snow in a 24-hour period than the region typically gets in an entire winter. According to Weather Service statistics, the storm ranked among the biggest snowfalls in local history.


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