Region rushes to prepare for another shot of winter weather

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; A01

Snowplow crews were ordered to continue working round-the-clock to open thousands of untouched neighborhood streets before turning to meet an ominous new winter storm on Tuesday.

Metro also rushed to finish digging out half-buried trains and buses before the advancing storm could coat the old snow with a layer of ice and 12 to 16 inches of fresh snow forecast by the National Weather Service.

The federal government, which was shuttered Monday, announced that it would be closed for a second day Tuesday. Most school systems in the region also will be closed Tuesday, and Loudoun County officials announced that classes have been canceled until Feb. 16.

Metro said it would provide increased, although still limited, service.

The disappearance of some fire hydrants beneath plowed mounds surfaced as a potentially life-threatening problem. And where to put all the snow being shoved aside, already a daunting challenge, loomed a larger issue with the possibility of more arriving.

"Parts of the region could experience true blizzard conditions," said Jason Samenow, chief meteorologist for The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang. "The bull's-eye looks to be a little north and east of the last storm, but it's probably going to be crippling in any event with all the snow still on the ground."

This storm is a confluence of two big low-pressure systems that are on track to collide off the North Carolina coast and then turn north, bringing heavy snowfall that will continue into Wednesday. Samenow said Virginia and the District might get 6 to 10 inches, while Maryland could receive as much as 14. High winds -- perhaps gusting to 50 mph -- might topple trees and take down power lines just as service was being restored to tens of thousands of customers.

The National Weather Service predicted late Monday that 12 to 16 inches of snow would fall in the District and its nearby suburbs by Wednesday. A little less was expected in Fairfax County, the weather service said. Snow was expected to start falling Tuesday afternoon and become heavy overnight, amid fierce winds.

A storm of the magnitude expected Tuesday would rank as a major weather event in a normal winter season, but it seems destined to be a footnote in a year that will be remembered for the ferocity of its snowstorms.

"In any other winter, this storm probably would be the big-ticket event," Samenow said. "Even at the lowest end of what we're forecasting for tomorrow, it would match the biggest snow we had last year."

Late Monday, the Office of Personnel Management announced that federal offices will be closed Tuesday because of challenging road conditions across the region. Most employees will be granted excused absences, but emergency employees are expected to report for work on time.

Metro announced late Monday that rail service will resume at some of its aboveground stations and that a limited amount of MetroAccess service will be provided between 8 a.m. and noon for people needing life-sustaining treatment. Rail and bus service will begin at 5 a.m. Tuesday but could be shut down early, depending on weather conditions. "We will have to watch and monitor what [the weather] does Tuesday night and Wednesday morning," Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said.

Late Monday, power companies still had not restored power to about 34,000 customers.

The people waging the battle to take back the streets from last weekend's near-record snowfall clustered in emergency command centers Monday, hunched over computer screens that flashed live traffic camera images and maps showing the progress of plows crunching into some neighborhoods for the first time.

"We want to focus our efforts on our residential streets, but with the new storm, we may need to move crews back out to the main arteries, depending on when the snow begins falling," said Gabe Klein, director of the District's Department of Transportation.

The snow was being plowed into enormous mounds wherever there was space, and trucks were hauling snow from bridges to be dumped elsewhere.

In Maryland and Virginia, heavier equipment was being used to hammer mountains of packed snow back from highway shoulders, opening space for that which is expected to fall Tuesday and Wednesday.

"The ridges [of snow] are so high and so frozen that the plows can't push them any farther," said Neil J. Pedersen, administrator of Maryland's State Highway Administration. "We've been concentrating our efforts to push back as much snow as we can, and we've had to bring in front-end loaders, graders and snowblowers to do it."

Snow that can't be pushed back farther is being trucked to state-owned property adjacent to the salt domes that supply trucks used to spread salt on the highways. Pedersen said that when frigid weather has rendered salt ineffective, more-expensive magnesium chloride has been used to melt the ice.

"This is such a monumental task that we will not be able to get all the lanes open," he said. "With the temperature around 30 today, salt has been working, and that means there's a lot of moisture on the roads that's going to turn into black ice overnight."

The Virginia Department of Transportation began treating major highways, including Interstate 66, Route 29 and the Springfield interchange, on Monday in preparation for Tuesday's storm.

"I imagine we're going to be challenged with sand and salt supplies," said VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris. "We keep bringing in more, but is it enough?"

Prince George's County said that all primary roads and about half of the residential streets had been cleared by mid-day and that crews would work through the night to reach as many more as possible before the Tuesday storm arrives.

"We should be at about 75, 80 percent, or even more," said Susan D. Hubbard of the county's Department of Public Works.

Montgomery County spokesman Patrick Lacefield said that although many residential streets remained to be plowed, by Monday evening the county was 24 hours ahead of what had been anticipated after the snowfall.

"We thought by tonight we'd still be on primary and secondary roads," he said. "But we're through them and well into the residential streets. We've been pushing hard on all of them. We're running people ragged."

Fire departments across the Washington region are asking residents to help dig out buried hydrants on their streets.

"It is truly a life safety issue," said Mark Stone of the Stafford County fire department.

In Prince George's, rescue workers had a close call Saturday night when they couldn't get to a hydrant next to a burning house.

About 9 p.m., an upstairs bedroom was burning in a house on Glynis Road in Fort Washington. The first firetruck on the scene began to use its 500 gallons of water to extinguish the flames.

Firefighters realized quickly that they needed more water, and when the next arriving truck got to the closest hydrant, firefighters saw that it was under two feet of snow, said department spokesman Mark Brady.

Rather than try to dig it out, the truck went to the next hydrant down the street and hooked up to it. No fire injuries were reported, but the house suffered $175,000 in damage.

The problem in reaching a hydrant "didn't have any impact on fighting the fire," Brady said. "But it certainly could have."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company