Busy rush hour as people head to work and shop

By Ashley Halsey III and Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; 9:02 AM

Washington's roads and highways were clogged during the early morning rush hour Tuesday, with a combination of ordinary commuters and holiday shoppers eager to make up for time lost during a snowbound weekend.

Save for the mounds of plowed snow lining most major thoroughfares, the traffic reports sounded routine: backups on Interstate 66 in Fairfax County from the Capital Beltway to Route 50, clogged lanes on the Beltway in Maryland, a couple lanes closed in key places on I-270 in Montgomery County.

Metrobus restored service on some routes that had been deemed impossible to navigate on Monday because of the weekend snowfall; several routes were still being compromised because of road conditions, however, and officials said some delays were expected.

For area schoolchildren, the feeling of an early holiday persisted, with major school systems still closed and some giving up plans for any classes before winter break. But for grownups, the majesty of a major snowstorm had begun to wear thin by late Monday, as emergency rooms in the Washington area filled with broken bones, holiday travelers sought to resurrect ruined plans and exhausted road crews continued to reclaim asphalt yard by yard.

The federal government, which was closed Monday, reopened Tuesday but granted liberal leave. Homeowners who marveled Saturday at the magnitude of the snowfall, up to two feet in some areas, had turned ornery by Monday, convinced that their street was destined to be the very last plowed.

"Arlington has the worst snow-removal plan I've seen," said Kendall Church, who lives near the Ballston Metro station. "I've yet to see any snowplows come through any of the streets in my neighborhood, but Arlington will not take removal requests like D.C. will, nor do they have a handy map that shows what streets have been cleared already."

Many people used Monday to catch up on shopping for the holidays, a godsend to merchants staggered by the weekend's losses. Snowplows had to fight through snarled traffic to attack mountains of snow surrounding roads near malls, and police were summoned to help control traffic as dark fell and gridlock set in at Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax.

Diane Supley, a manager at J. Jill, a women's clothing store, lives four miles from the mall, but she said it took her 90 minutes to get to work, where she discovered throngs of shoppers.

"It's wall-to-wall people," she said. "I went to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and the line was twice as long as usual."

A few retailers, such as Macy's at Tysons Corner, stayed open all night Monday and into Tuesday, part of a round-the-clock blitz for last-minute buyers that will last through Christmas Eve.

Digging out

The District was leading in the street-clearing effort, reporting that most of the major work had been done and that crews would tackle missed streets and revisit some that had been plowed early in the storm. Montgomery County plows were tackling neighborhoods in the most densely populated areas. It might be Wednesday before the first path is opened into some Northern Virginia neighborhoods, and Prince George's County was bedeviled by ice.

"You can't plow ice," said Jim Keary, a Prince George's spokesman. "What they're having to do is treat the streets before plowing them."

Without confidence that residential streets would be safe for buses, administrators closed schools Tuesday in Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery counties. Schools in Northern Virginia and in Calvert, Frederick, Prince George's and St. Mary's opted to declare an early start to the holidays and will remain closed until after New Year's. Schools in the District and Calvert County had already begun their scheduled winter break.

"You know what Fairfax County's like," said Paul Regnier, Fairfax schools spokesman, explaining the decision to remain closed. "It's cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac. A lot of these haven't been plowed. . . . Our main concern, obviously, is the safety of the kids. We don't want them standing on the street waiting for the bus."

After a Sunday of snow-clearing, nightfall brought temperatures in the 20s, and by morning wet sidewalks were icy. That sent people tumbling, and many rolled into emergency rooms for X-rays, splints and casts.

"We had a total of 57 X-rays this morning for backs, ankles, hands and wrists," said Ron Harris, a spokesman for Howard University Hospital.

"The emergency room is very busy," said Justin Paquette, spokesman for Anne Arundel Medical Center. "There are a lot of folks coming in as a result of the weather. We are well above what we see on a normal day."

At George Washington University Medical Center, spokeswoman Heather Oldham said that most of the weather-related injuries there were more of the oh-my-aching-back variety.

"Today, we have had less than a dozen visits, mostly people complaining of injuries from shoveling," Oldham said.

With cars buried under snow mountains and walled into parking spaces and driveways by snowplows, digging out sidewalks was apparently a low priority in some neighborhoods.

D.C. law requires property owners to clear snow and ice from their sidewalks within the first eight daylight hours after a snowfall, according to the city Department of Transportation's Web site.

"Many sidewalks are still impassible, forcing pedestrians to walk in the street," said Department of Public Works Director William O. Howland Jr. "This is already a dangerous situation, made even more hazardous with our large plows out there on the road. We really need pedestrians out of the street to allow the plows to do their jobs without posing a safety risk."

Metro opened all of its all rail stations in time for the commute Monday morning, after aboveground service had been suspended for most of the weekend. The agency reported few delays. Metrobus service, which had been abandoned Sunday night because of ice, was mostly restored.

Salvaging holiday travel

Monday was the first time since Friday that the Washington area's major highways and three main airports were in full operation. Flights were operating with minimal delays, but thousands of people whose trips were canceled over the weekend flocked to airline counters in hopes of getting on another flight.

An estimated 2.5 million of the region's residents had plans to travel over the holidays, and heavy traffic on interstates 95, 270 and 66 suggested that many who were delayed had set out.

As people sought to drive, their cries for help were heard by AAA, which expected to receive 15,000 calls at its mid-Atlantic service centers. From midnight Sunday through noon Monday, AAA responded to 7,724 calls, about 55 percent more than normal.

"We understand that people want to be able to get their vehicles going, but with the volume of calls, we are focusing on those stranded away from their residences," spokesman John B. Townsend II said.

Staff writers Sholnn Freeman, Hamil R. Harris, Nelson Hernandez, Kafia Hosh and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

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