Historic snowstorm in D.C. leaves a mess to be reckoned with

By Carol Morello and Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 2010; A01

In whiteout, many things come to standstill

The Washington region was paralyzed by a blizzard that dumped more than two feet of heavy snow on the area by late Saturday, knocking out power for hundreds of thousands of people, toppling trees and reducing many streets to pedestrian pathways.

Almost 218,000 homes and business were without power at the outages' peak, and many had no heat midday Saturday at the height of the storm. By late last night, about 140,000 were still in the dark. Pepco advised customers to seek other lodging, saying it could take days to restore power to everyone. Some residents abandoned their cold, dark houses and checked into hotels. Others were trapped on side streets as snowplows concentrated on keeping major arteries clear.

So much snow fell, nonstop, that even plows occasionally became stuck and crews ran out of places to push piles from roads they cleared again and again. District transportation officials warned of huge snowbanks at intersections and said they would interfere with motorists' sight lines for days to come.

Many people needed superlatives to describe the storm.

"As much snow as any one of us have seen in our lifetime," District Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said.

"This is the worst," said Joan Mancuso, 70, who has lived in her two-story house on Tildenwood Drive in Rockville for 41 years.

Across the region, snowfall totals approached or broke records. For the first time in at least 30 years, the U.S. Postal Service did not deliver mail Saturday, citing the safety of customers and employees alike. Popular attractions such as the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, Smithsonian museums and the White House were closed to visitors.

National Park Service workers cleared icy walkways and rescued stranded motorists. Officials could not recall another blanket closure like this one.

"With the high winds and driving snow, you can't even see the top of the Washington Monument from the base," said Sgt. David Schlosser, a Park Police spokesman.

Officials said they were considering opening shelters for people who have lost electricity.

"The problem is not so much the location, but getting people to the shelter safely," said Montgomery County Executive Isaiah Leggett (D) of the county's intention to open a shelter Sunday. "We don't want to create a hazard" by bringing people out of their homes.

Dave McKernan, coordinator of emergency management for Fairfax County, said the jurisdiction was also considering opening shelters but asked residents without power to stay home in the meantime because of treacherous road conditions.

Overwhelmed by the magnitude of the cleanup task ahead, Maryland and Virginia officials cautioned that it could be midweek before many people are able to return to work. National Guards in both states and the District were called to assist.

However, District officials said it should not take as long for the city to get up and running. "Our goal is to do everything possible to have this city open for business early Monday," Fenty said.

The snow had stopped by nightfall Saturday, and blizzard and winter storm warnings were canceled at 4:50 p.m. But more snow is expected Tuesday afternoon into Wednesday, posing difficulties in rebooking passengers whose travel plans were disrupted when the three area airports canceled all flights by Saturday.

For the record books

The blizzard of 2010 arrived with plenty of warning that it would be epic, and the storm dubbed "Snowmageddon" before the first flake fell Friday morning did not disappoint.

The mid-Atlantic was socked in as the storm raged across Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In some areas of Loudoun County and West Virginia, almost three feet of snow fell. Baltimore was ahead of the District in snowfall, with 28 inches by 7 p.m. Saturday.

All Metrorail service was scheduled to stop at 11 p.m. Saturday, four hours earlier than normal. Underground service only was to resume at 7 a.m. Sunday and run until midnight. No bus service or above-ground rail service was planned Sunday.

Metro officials would not predict when above-ground rail service would resume after being halted Friday night. They planned to have heavy diesel-powered trains work through the night to remove ice from the tracks. The electrified third rail that powers trains must be clear of snow and ice. Metro is also placing heated cables on the third rail in rail yards to prevent ice from forming.

Several hundred Metro employees and contractors armed with shovels, Bobcats and heavy plows labored to clear piles of snow from station entrances and above-ground tracks Saturday. Underground service continued during the storm, though some stations were late opening Saturday because employees had trouble getting to work.

The National Weather Service said 17.8 inches of snow were measured at Reagan National Airport by 6 p.m. It appeared to be Washington's fourth-greatest snow accumulation since the service began keeping records.

It was behind the 18.7 inches measured in 1979 and the 20.5 inches measured in February 1899.

Washington's largest snowfall was the 28 inches that fell in January 1922, when 98 people died after snow caved in the roof of the Knickerbocker theater at 18th Street and Columbia Road.

Forecasters described last week's storm as life-threatening. Two men died in Southern Virginia on Friday when they were hit by a truck after getting out of their car to assist at a crash. They are the only known fatalities so far.

A snow-laden roof on a hangar for private jets at Dulles International Airport collapsed on four planes housed inside about 8 a.m. Saturday, but the five people in the building escaped without injury, airport officials said. The roof of the Prince William Ice Center in Woodbridge also collapsed, but no injuries were reported.

The weight of the snow caused damage to two church facilities. A tree fell on the roof of Joshua's Temple First Born Church on Sheriff Road in Northeast Washington, D.C. fire officials said. The roof and walls gave way, leaving only the vestibule and steeple. In Southern Maryland, the roof on St. John's School in Hollywood caved in, destroying more than half a dozen classrooms, said a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Some had a (snow)ball

Many people heeded the pleadings of officials to stay home to hibernate for the day. But thousands of others were drawn to snowball fights across the region, including a large one in Dupont Circle organized via social networking sites.

In Rock Creek Park, Beach Drive became a makeshift a cross-country ski run. Skiers dodged cracking and falling trees and branches to enjoy the packed powder.

"This is perfect," said skier Emily Siegal, 29, of Cleveland Park.

Several athletic events went on as scheduled, including the noon Georgetown-Villanova matchup at Verizon Center, which attracted more than 10,000 people. But Saturday night's Wizards game against the Atlanta Hawks was postponed.

Shoveling was the day's preoccupation. On some neighborhood e-mail groups, people warned that shovel thieves were out and about. There were many more postings -- usually from mothers -- offering adolescents to clear sidewalks and driveways.

"Two strong teenage boys," wrote one parent, describing her sons as "eager to serve."

It will be weeks before the economic impact of the storm is tallied, but it is sure to be in the millions of dollars. Most commercial strips were largely deserted, though some groceries, pharmacies and bakeries opened. A number of bars did a booming business, thanks to customers fighting cabin fever.

"Sunday will be telling," said D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Lang. "Business depends on how quickly you can get rid of the snow."

Jim Fab, owner of Fab Electric in Gaithersburg, said his company could lose $45,000 to $60,000 in business if the snow isn't cleared quickly. Fab said full recovery from December's snowstorm of 16.4 inches took two weeks.

"This one will easily take three weeks," he said.

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