Days after storm passes, many still await the plow

By Sandhya Somashekhar and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; A07

At first it was fun, staying all cozy indoors and then venturing out for the occasional wade into the snow. But by Monday afternoon, the fact that Willa Reinhard's Southeast D.C. cul-de-sac had yet to be plowed even once had lost its novelty.

"At this point, we've had our fun with the snowstorm and it would be nice to get back to normal," said Reinhard, who teaches English at a private school in the District. "We don't want to be stuck forever."

Days after the area received a snowfall that was measured in feet instead of inches, the clean-up effort is being calculated in intersections and blocks. As state and local agencies continue digging out, some roads have been scraped to the pavement; others remain buried, prompting complaints from residents in neighborhoods across the region.

"We apparently are in a section of this neighborhood that just doesn't rate, since everyone else is plowed," said Sue Merritt, a meeting planner who lives near the Glenmont Metro Station in Wheaton. "I wouldn't be nearly as upset if some of the streets around here hadn't been cleared."

In general, local agencies have sought to clear major through-ways first, followed by secondary and neighborhood roads. They are using computerized tracking systems to monitor progress in the neighborhoods, which they said are slowly but surely being plowed. By midday Monday, agencies across the region reported that most main roads were passable, but that many smaller roads remained a problem.

"We are working feverishly to hit every last street and every last cul-de-sac before the next storm hits," said Joan Morris of the Virginia Department of Transportation. "We understand the frustration people feel."

Area officials said they plan to stick to the same patterns Tuesday and Wednesday, when another major storm is expected to cover the area in snow. The only difference this time would be finding a place to put an extra foot or two.

But the pattern followed by clean-up crews was neither evident nor a solace to those still trapped in their homes as plows repeatedly cleared neighboring streets but passed theirs by. Officials urged patience as their offices were flooded with phone calls from angry residents complaining they couldn't leave their homes.

How governments handle the storm could have significant political implications, especially for area leaders up for reelection this year. They include D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Maryland Gov. Martin J. O'Malley (D).

Washingtonians have long memories when it comes to snow removal. Former D.C. mayor Marion Barry (D) suffered a blizzard of criticism for his decision to stay in California to watch the Super Bowl and play tennis during a double snowstorm in January 1987. It paralyzed the city for days with more than 20 inches of snow; Barry later apologized.

On Monday, Fenty urged patience, especially as a second winter storm headed toward the region, potentially undoing all of the plowing done so far.

"This is a big snow, but we're not making excuses. We'll get it all up," said Fenty, who reported having no trouble driving himself through the city Monday in a convertible SMART car.

Asked about residents' complaints, he said, "The customer is always right." He added that "all over the city, we're trying to clear the streets as fast as humanly possible."

Moments before Fenty began a news conference Monday afternoon, a snowplow worked frantically to clean up slush and ice on the road in front of the Bald Eagle Recreation Center, where the mayor was announcing an expansion.

Some politicians saw an opportunity in the storm. Virginia Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) sent a note to constituents promising to personally address any plowing concerns, going so far as to send out his cellphone number. Rushern L. Baker III (D), who is running for county executive in Prince George's, organized a group of volunteers to help seniors and those with medical conditions to dig out of their homes.

"In any crisis like this, the government can only do so much," Baker said. "This is New England-type snow."

In the District, many cars were still encased in cocoons of snow, and some intersections remained an obstacle course of hardening slush and chunks of ice. Several residents in wards 7 and 8, including Council member Yvette M. Alexander, said they saw plows getting stuck in their neighborhoods. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who lives in Penn Branch, questioned whether heavy plow equipment was being equitably distributed throughout the city.

"We all have been stranded for three days -- not one plow," Alexander said. "There is no love for Ward 7."

But snowdrifts blocked roads elsewhere as well, including in Dupont Circle. "The snow does not seem to be going anywhere," said Robin Diener, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association.

In the suburbs, some trapped residents have resorted to shoveling and snow-blowing beyond their driveway to get out of the house to obtain food and other necessities. Others have relied on neighbors with four-wheel-drive vehicles to tamp down the snow to make roads somewhat passable.

In at least one neighborhood, pleas to local officials were heard -- residents of Maywood in Arlington County cheered when a plow came through just before noon Monday. But elsewhere, residents have not been so lucky.

Some said they were baffled by the logic behind their government's decision to plow some streets and leave others untouched. In Montgomery, parts of Bradley Boulevard, a major thoroughfare, had not seen a snowplow as of 10:30 a.m. Monday. But many smaller neighborhood streets had been cleared, causing a neighborhood listserve to flare up with puzzled messages.

On Saturday, plows from the Virginia Department of Transportation were a constant presence on Beulah Road, a popular north-south cut-through in Fairfax County, said resident Jeff Anderson. But as of Monday afternoon the plows had yet to take a turn into the neighborhoods, prompting him to wonder: How would people use the bigger road if they can't get out of their smaller neighborhood ones?

"It seems to me they're not moving fast enough into the side streets, especially when these minor-major roads are seemingly okay now," he said. "I think a lot of people are frustrated."

To other conspiracy-minded Washingtonians, the inequities were downright suspicious.

Jim Humphrey, who lives a few blocks from downtown Bethesda, said his street and many others in the Edgemoor neighborhood have not been plowed. But he noted that the area around nearby Sidwell Friends Lower School, a few blocks away, was among the first to get plowed once the snow stopped on Saturday afternoon. That school, of course, is where Sasha Obama attends third grade. (Though like all area schools, Sidwell was closed on Monday.)

Reinhard, the Southeast D.C. resident, said she understood why her rather isolated cul-de-sac might not have been among the first ones plowed. But most streets around hers have been cleared, she said, including the one where D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) lives -- though she didn't think he was getting favorable treatment.

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