Major snowstorm could break D.C. area records

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; 3:32 PM

After hearing hype that rivaled the Super Bowl, after sweeping the supermarkets clean and stockpiling enough food for a winter's hibernation, after lining up to fill gas tanks in cars that would go nowhere for a few days, after staying home from school and work to await the moment, people peered out their windows on Friday to see the first falling flakes of the promised super snowstorm.

In many areas, those first flakes melted as they hit pavement, causing brief optimism among drivers dashing home or on last-minute errands. But with temperatures falling and more snow waiting in layers of sodden gray clouds, the streets and surrounding landscape quickly turned white.

With the fall of darkness, the forecast suggested, true blizzard conditions could descend. Often used loosely to describe a heavy snowfall, a true blizzard has sustained winds or gusts above 35 mph, blowing snow that cuts visibility below a quarter of a mile and lasts at least three hours.

The consensus among forecasters was that there would be at least 20 inches by late Saturday, and some thought it might be a record-breaking 30 or more.

Most businesses that opened Friday began to close early. People rushed through supermarkets and liquor stores with a glazed-eye determination that rivaled their resolve on Christmas Eve in a toy store.

The District declared a snow emergency, ticketing cars parked on emergency routes and changing traffic signals to handle an early evening rush hour.

The school systems that bothered to open at all -- in the District and the Maryland counties of Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel -- sent everyone home early.

Officials everywhere urged people to hunker down at home and stay off the roads.

"We are going to be right up against the most snow this city has ever seen," said D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

"It's not safe for anyone to be out on the roads or sidewalks at that point," said Gabe Klein, director of the District Department of Transportation.

The record was set with a 28-inch snowfall in January 1922. The big snowfall that began Dec. 19 ranked seventh, with 16.4 the official inch count.

As if to turn a lemon into lemonade, people in the Dupont Circle area decided to invite people to convene at 2 p.m. Saturday for a "totally pointless" snowball fight.

As she prepared for a long winter's night and a longer winter weekend, one woman at a Rite Aid drugstore in Bethesda marveled, "I can't believe how much advance notice we got of this storm."

Unlike the storm last weekend, which sneaked up and delivered a wallop, this time there was plenty of warning that a big one was on the way.

At Schneider's Liquor on Capitol Hill, one owner held the door for continuous entering and exiting traffic while the other directed drivers in the small parking lot.

With four people working the registers, the line still wrapped down one aisle and curved into the next. Jon Genderson, co-owner, said the crowding started Thursday, and the store has been packed since opening at 10 a.m. Friday.

Marc Ono headed to Schneider's after it was announced that federal employees were to be released early from work, and he received an e-mail from the liquor store, alerting customers that it would be closed Saturday.

"For everyone there's the fear of uncertainty, so we buy what we need to last several days," he said. "Simply got myself some liquid bread and liquid fruit today."

Highway crews rolled out for their third all-hands deployment of the winter season, pre-treating roads as the flakes began to fall, fully aware that nothing in their arsenal could keep pace with snow falling at two to three inches an hour.

"It's just going to be a continual plowing operation and keeping up the best we can," said Kellie Boulware of Maryland's State Highway Administration. "It's going to be a long weekend."

The region's biggest employer -- the federal government -- said workers could take unscheduled leave Friday.

Those federal employees who came to work were allowed to leave four hours early, the government said. Most local governments also offered leave or early closures. For the first time in 40 years, the Virginia legislature canceled all meetings during its annual session. The World Bank declared Friday a snow holiday "in the interest of staff safety."

It would be just the third time in almost 60 years that the region has experienced two snowfalls in excess of 10 inches in one season, according to records of The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang.

Metro anticipated that snow and ice would impede bus service and was prepared to close above-ground portions of Metrorail once snowfall reached eight inches on the tracks and began to cover the electrified third rail.

Amtrak canceled some service along the Eastern Seaboard for Friday and truncated the routes of other trains.

Airlines relaxed ticketing restrictions to help passengers who might otherwise be stranded and advised fliers to check before heading to the airports. "As in the last storm, we are still able to make adjustments as the storm comes along," said Rob Yingling, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Lines were long at local airports Friday morning, as passengers rushed to get out of the area before the first flakes fell.

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