Washington snow forces snow plows, utility repair crews off the road

After two recent snowstorms closed the federal government and schools across the region, people began digging out. The season's snow tally in D.C. reached 55.6 inches Wednesday -- more than the last record of 54.4 inches, set in 1898-99.
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; 10:32 AM

The season's fourth powerful storm pummeled the region with heavy snow and gale force winds Wednesday morning, creating near white-out conditions on downtown streets and suburban neighborhoods.

Flights were canceled at all three area airports, as barely plowed streets and already straining rooftops and tree branches were covered with inches of fresh snow. Mail service was suspended, the number of homes and businesses without power began to climb, and a blizzard warning was extended through the entire Washington area.

The District and Montgomery County suspended plowing operations about 9:30 a.m. because of the hazardous weather conditions, and Pepco pulled its utility crews off the roads as well.

"They're starting to get white-out conditions throughout Montgomery County," said Montgomery spokeswoman Esther Bowring. "It's just not safe to operate."

VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris said Virginia plow operators have not been recalled but would get off the roads if conditions were deemed too dangerous.

"I haven't seen anything like it since Chicago 30 years ago," said Bethesda resident Laurie Leone, who grew up in the Windy City and felt transported back in time when she looked out her window and saw the frenzied flakes. Her husband, Joe Leone, tried to take the dog out. But the pet, a cross between a Shih Tzu and a poodle, balked at walking into the blizzard. Eventually, it relented.

The storm system arrived overnight with less force than expected, but forecasters were predicting up to a foot of total accumulation -- and even more snow north and east of Washington. Much of the winter-weary region surrendered to the forces of nature, shutting down governments and schools for a third consecutive day. Many businesses were closed as well, and several school systems said they wouldn't reopen until next week.

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, which said the day would bring "a perfect recipe for impassable streets, limited transit and power failures."

With equipment and road crews strained to the breaking point, salt and patience were running short. The mood in the winter-weary region turned sullen and resigned. 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 Tuesday evening before the new snow arrived fell short, and people still trapped in their homes saw their isolation prolonged.

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