Fourth Washington snowstorm of season tests area power lines, patience

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; A01

As the fourth powerful winter storm of the season started arriving in Washington on Tuesday, the beleaguered region surrendered to the forces of nature, shutting down governments and schools -- some until next week -- in response to a forecast for a foot of snow and gale-force winds that threatened to topple trees and take down power lines.

With equipment and road crews strained to the breaking point, salt and patience were running short. By the time it's all over, probably Wednesday afternoon, the immense weight of the three or more feet of snow piled on rooftops is expected to cause more to collapse. More people are likely to find themselves in unheated, dark houses.

"We expect increasingly gusty winds peaking toward midday and early afternoon. Trees and power lines will come down," said meteorologist Dan Stillman of The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang.

The mood in the winter-weary region turned sullen and resigned as the storm approached, prompting the closure of schools, local governments and federal offices for a third day. If the big snow in December felt like an adventure, the bombardment since then has begun to feel like purgatory.

"People have gotten stir-crazy and desperate, especially in the last 48 hours," said Christopher Galen of Annandale, who said he hadn't seen a snowplow since the last storm started Friday. "You keep waiting and waiting, and help doesn't show."

A desperate effort to cut a path down streets to every neighborhood before the new snow arrived fell short, and people still trapped in their homes saw their isolation prolonged.

"We will give those roads first attention when this storm is over," said Joan Morris of the Virginia Department of Transportation, who said crews worked to clear subdivisions "until the very last minute" before returning to try to keep primary roads open Tuesday night.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) pleaded for patience from those angered by the pace of road-clearing: "There is no city or county government that is geared up to move all of this snow."

School systems in Montgomery, Prince George's, Loudoun, Anne Arundel and Howard counties and Manassas won't reopen until next week. Alexandria schools will be closed Wednesday and Thursday, and schools in the District and Fairfax, Prince William, Arlington and Charles counties will be closed Wednesday.

Metro officials, who suspended aboveground trains at 8:45 p.m. Tuesday, said service would probably be limited to underground stations Wednesday. Metrobus and MetroAccess service were canceled entirely for Wednesday.

Most other forms of public transportation are curtailed or suspended. The Montgomery RideOn, Fairfax Connector, D.C. Circulator and MTA commuter buses are canceled. No flights are expected to operate at Reagan National or Washington Dulles International airports; Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport is asking passengers to check with their airlines before going to the airport. VRE and MARC will not run Wednesday, and Amtrak is offering limited service in its Northeast corridor.

The federal government is marking its first three-day weather-related shutdown since January 1996. It is costing $100 million a day in lost productivity, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

The worst of the newest storm seemed aimed at Maryland. Accumulations of 10 to 16 inches were forecast for the state, a bit less than the 20 inches previously predicted. Northern Virginia could get six to 12 inches.

The possibility of true blizzard conditions by midday Wednesday led O'Malley and other officials to urge people to stay off roads.

Maryland State Police officials said they would act swiftly to shut down highways if necessary, hoping to avoid the scores of jack-knifed tractor-trailers and abandoned vehicles that stymied snowplows after last weekend's big storm. "With 50 mile-per-hour winds forecasted, driving will be extremely dangerous. We need people to heed the warnings and stay home," said Maryland State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen.

District Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) reinstated the city's snow emergency plan at 4 p.m. to clear major roads in anticipation of the storm.

A sense of urgency prevailed everywhere Tuesday.

Hardware and grocery stores ran low on fire logs, flashlights, batteries, lanterns and lamp oil. Long lines formed for replenished supplies of shovels.

Out-of-state crews helped restore electricity to thousands of homes that had been without power since Friday, but about 6,000 remained without heat or electricity late Tuesday. Most were in Montgomery, which opened two additional overnight shelters. Shelters at the Gwendolyn Coffield Community Center in Silver Spring and Seneca Valley High School in Germantown join one at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said road crews that had been digging neighborhoods out would have to return to maintaining major roads.

"The county's snow operations center is gearing up to send plows back to primary streets as soon as the new snow starts," Leggett said. "Plows will begin clearing primary and arterial roads, then secondary roads, and then the 4,128 miles of neighborhood roads."

Arlington crews had made at least one pass through 95 percent of neighborhood streets by late Tuesday, spokeswoman Diana Sun said, but efforts to clear neighborhood roads will be set back, possibly by days, by the new storm.

Prince George's health officials said that shoveling snow could provoke heart attacks in people with sedentary lifestyles.

The snow was getting old fast for many people, whether they were trapped in a house with no power or on an unplowed street, or relatively comfortable in a hotel or at a friend's house.

Mike Abrams fled to a nearby Hilton with his wife, son, family dog and bird after their Rockville home lost power Saturday and the temperature inside dropped into the 40s.

"It feels like it's been a week, but it's only been, like, three or four days," said Abrams, who had since taken his family to stay with friends.

Tony Ieronimo wasn't taking any chances, either.

Since losing power at midnight Friday, Ieronimo, his wife and their two daughters had been living in the basement of their Rockville home because it is better insulated. As the temperature dipped into the 40s, they slept with a hand warmer under the sheets. They ate cold cereal for breakfast and cold cuts for dinner.

By Tuesday, they'd had enough. They were loading their possessions to go to a friend's house when they looked up and saw a repairman in a truck with North Carolina plates. He got their power back in 20 minutes.

But the Ieronimos went to their friend's house anyway.

"With the next storm coming, I thought, it's only going to get lousy again," Tony Ieronimo said, speaking on a cellphone that he had been using sparingly to preserve power. "It's the same snow."

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