Massive storm sets December record, cripples transit

By Carol Morello and Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009; A01

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.

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.

It was still snowing in the District at 10 p.m., but flakes seemed finer and fewer, reinforcing the suggestion that the storm's end was approaching.

At the storm's zenith, governments responded with urgency. The Virginia National Guard called 600 soldiers to duty for storm assistance. States of emergency were declared in the District and Prince George's, where Johnson warned people to stay off the roads.

"We have too many people on the highway," Johnson said in an interview. "People are not to be on the road. The police will be turning them back. It's requiring too much of our public safety services. We want to focus on people who need to go to the hospital. People are not to leave home. No matter where they are, we are going to have them go back. The conditions are too awful."

There were not many places to go, anyway.

At a time of year notable for its bustle, much of the region was in cancellation mode. The Smithsonian closed its museums. The Washington Ballet called off its performance of "The Nutcracker," and Ford's Theatre shut down two performances of "A Christmas Carol." District police canceled their Toys for Tots distribution. The archdioceses in Baltimore and Washington reminded Catholics that church law excuses them from Mass if it is unsafe to travel, and urged them to watch on television instead.

Participants in a massive snowball fight at 14th and U streets NW were apparently confronted by a police officer in street clothes who briefly unholstered his gun, based on images that were posted online. Police said they were investigating.

In some spheres, life went on normally, with a twist. True to its credo, the U.S. Postal Service delivered mail, though several post offices with Saturday hours closed early. Georgetown University went ahead with scheduled final exams. The Senate convened with health-care insurance on the agenda, and senators were chauffeured in Chevrolet Suburbans. President Obama flew into Andrews Air Force Base, returning from climate talks in Copenhagen, but weather conditions forced him to ride back to the White House in a motorcade instead of a helicopter.

A Washington Hospital Center patient was reassured to learn that staff members were staying overnight Saturday, sleeping on couches and in armchairs, to make certain of adequate staffing levels Sunday.

Many people trying to use Metro on Saturday afternoon were caught unaware when buses and aboveground trains stopped running about 1 p.m. because of the snow.

Tony Dorsey was on the Orange Line between the Dunn Loring and Vienna stations when the train stopped shortly after 1 p.m. The operator initially announced that they were returning to Dunn Loring, Dorsey said, then said no one was going anywhere; the train's brakes were frozen.

Dorsey said he and other passengers were stranded for nearly 2 1/2 hours until another piece of equipment arrived and dragged the train back to the station. Metro said 10 customers were stranded for about 90 minutes. Steven Taubenkibel, a Metro spokesman, blamed the stoppage on the weather, and said customers eventually were driven to their destinations by Metro supervisors.

Dorsey, 39, of Linden, Va., said he and his fellow riders bonded during their wintry ordeal. "In times of turmoil and deprivation, humans really become human," he said.

Metro said late Saturday that conditions would be reassessed Sunday morning in hopes of expanding rail service and restarting bus service on main roads sometime during the day. MetroAccess will remain closed Sunday because so many of the region's primary and secondary roads are not expected to be cleared of snow and ice, Metro said.

Montgomery County said Ride On buses will begin operating at 10 a.m. Sunday, but delays and detours should be expected.

Getting anywhere Saturday was fraught with delays and difficulties.

Roadsides across the region were cluttered with cars that had skidded or been abandoned. Virginia State Police said they dealt with more than 2,900 incidents involving crashes or disabled vehicles between midnight and 4 p.m. Saturday throughout the state.

Some traffic jams were monumental. The backup on Interstate 81 near Lexington stretched seven miles after an accident, and motorists were stuck in their vehicles for as long as 12 hours, state officials said. There also was a long backup in Virginia after West Virginia temporarily closed Interstate 77 at the border, and state tow trucks were called in to haul away trucks that could not climb a hill. Disabled vehicles blocked northbound lanes of Interstate 95 in Prince William about 8 p.m. Saturday.

Trains in the Boston-to-Washington corridor were delayed by 30 to 60 minutes, said Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham.

At the Greyhound bus terminal, 300 bus passengers had been stranded since Friday evening, when the carrier canceled most of its routes through the region. The American Red Cross purchased meals for the passengers at Hardee's, a vendor inside the station, and provided blankets Saturday night. Most of the passengers are traveling through and have nowhere else to go, said Marchel Rucker, manager for the station.

An Air Jamaica flight left a Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport gate at 8:35 a.m., never took off and returned to the gate at 3 p.m., the Associated Press reported.

Decisions about Maryland and Virginia state governments will not be made before Sunday night.

Something else may take a while to figure: whether the storm was a true blizzard. An official at the Weather Service said that even if it did not meet all criteria, including 35 mph winds, it was "doggone close."

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