Snowstorm's intensity has D.C. region hunkering down

By Ashley Halsey III and Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 6, 2010; A01

The full weight of winter bore down on the Washington region Friday night, bringing life to a near standstill in some places as a storm predicted to be one of the most powerful on record brought snow that was falling as fast as two inches an hour overnight.

Police reported two fatalities -- a father and son hit by a tractor-trailer in Virginia when they stopped to help a stranded motorist -- and with the snowfall expected to outpace plows' ability to clear it, officials pleaded with people to stay off the roads until conditions improve.

Metro, the transportation lifeline for tens of thousands of people, halted service to aboveground portions of its system at 11 p.m. Friday. The restriction was to remain in place Saturday.

Metro also halted all bus service at 9 p.m. Friday. No Metrobus or MetroAccess service will be provided Saturday, officials said.

"Stay in unless you absolutely have to be out," said John Lisle of the District Department of Transportation. "We could be looking at near-whiteout conditions, and it's going to be hard for the plows to see people. We've still got a lot of storm ahead of us."

As the moisture-laden snow continued to fall, Virginia authorities shut down westbound Interstate 66 from Rosslyn to the Beltway just after 11 p.m. Friday to permit plowing, state police said.

Many Friday flights and all Saturday flights at Reagan National Airport were canceled, as were most domestic operations at Dulles International Airport, according to Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Some international flights were continuing at Dulles.

Just after dark Friday, a full blizzard warning was extended east to the Chesapeake Bay for the first time in memory. The National Weather Service said the warning would remain in effect until 10 p.m. Saturday.

"This extremely dangerous storm is expected to produce record snowfall for the Washington metropolitan area," the National Weather Service said. It warned that travel conditions would be "extremely hazardous and life-threatening, and all citizens are urged to remain indoors."

Although "blizzard" is often loosely used 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.

"Get ready (if you stay up) for some of the heaviest -- if not the heaviest -- snowfall rates you ever see around here," forecasters with The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang said Friday night. "It will come down in buckets, perhaps with some thunder, most of the night. The heaviest focus is likely from around 10 p.m. through sunrise. While most locations should pick up at least one foot overnight alone, don't be surprised if some spots pick up a good bit more."

Power lines weaken

The big blow rolled in with a different attitude than the two major storms of the season that preceded it. This time, higher temperatures made for a wet and heavy snow that weighed down trees and overhead lines. Even before nightfall, the maps that track power outages in Virginia, Maryland and the District began to register the toll. Trees were also toppled in southwestern Virginia.

More than 50,000 homes and businesses in the immediate Metro area were without electricity early Saturday. The figure in Northern Virginia was about 33,000 and in the District and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, about 19,000.

On Friday, one island of public life was Verizon Center, where the Washington Capitals extended their winning streak Friday night to 13 games with a victory over the Atlanta Thrashers. An announcement of the Metrorail service changes was made at the game.

The Caps hope to take the ice at Verizon again at noon Sunday. Between those games, the hardwood was to be put down for a pair of basketball games Saturday.

Georgetown vowed that its noon game with No. 2-ranked Villanova, for which 20,000 tickets had been sold, would be played as scheduled.

"We are asking people not to attempt to drive but to take Metro," said Georgetown spokesman Mike "Mex" Carey.

The Washington Wizards are scheduled to take the floor Saturday night against the Atlanta Hawks.

An unscheduled form of public athletic activity took place Friday night in many parts of the area as impromptu snowball fights broke out. The wet snow was easily formed into snowballs to the delight of many.

'The city was empty'

The region's largest employer, the federal government, allowed workers to take unscheduled leave Friday but opened its doors to anyone who chose to work. But those who did were sent home early.

"My goal was to have the city essentially evacuated by 2 p.m., and I was watching carefully and I walked home at 3:30 p.m. to verify for myself, and basically the city was empty," said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Berry, who decides when to open or close D.C. area federal offices, said he hoped to reach a conclusion before Sunday's Super Bowl kickoff about whether to open offices.

Officials estimate that closing Washington area federal offices costs taxpayers $100 million in lost operation and opportunity costs, part of the reason Berry decided to keep federal offices open Friday with the unscheduled leave policy and an early dismissal.

"I'm sure there would have been taxpayers concerned that we closed offices when there wasn't any snow on the ground," he said. "That said, we wanted to ensure the safety of our employees."

The storm's intensity seemed to increase as darkness fell Friday. It was no longer the fluffy stuff that had floated to the ground earlier. It was falling hard, in a southwestern slant.

Just before midnight Friday, snow accumulations ranged from six to 11 inches across the area. Winds picked up, and heavy snow continued to fall.

And it had bite. Accidents were on the rise on Virginia and Maryland roads as temperatures dropped. But only the single fatal accident on Interstate 81 in Wythe County was reported by Virginia State Police, spokesmen for the agencies said.

Maryland State Police troopers were north of Aberdeen at an accident in which two adults and three children in a van had run into the back of a snowplow on Route 426 at Interstate 95. Troopers did not yet know the extent of injuries but said that it appeared serious, said state police spokesman Greg Shipley. The plow was operated by a contractor for the Maryland Highway Administration, he said.

By late Friday, Virginia state police said they responded to more than 1,000 crashes. They also were called to help with hundreds of disabled vehicles.

In the District, the Third Street Tunnel was shut down about 7:30 p.m. after the bed of a contract dump truck struck the tunnel roof near New York Avenue NW. No injuries were reported, but officials closed the road while they removed loads of salt and debris. The tunnel was scheduled to reopen at 10 p.m.

Many businesses in the region began to give up hope of opening Saturday morning. At Eastern Market in the District, management told store owners not to open, citing safety concerns.

About 4 p.m. at the Giant grocery store on Connecticut Avenue in Van Ness, a steady stream of customers continued to pick over thinly stocked shelves.

A line of more than 30 customers snaked through Blockbuster Video in Upper Marlboro as residents tried to stock up on entertainment for what promised to be a long, snowed-in weekend.

"If I'm gonna get snowed in, at least [I'll] have a couple good movies. . . . Otherwise I wouldn't be standing in this long line."

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