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

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.

"We will give those roads first attention when this storm is over," said Morris, of the Virginia Department of Transportation. She 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 service to aboveground stations at 8:45 p.m. Tuesday, limited rail operations to underground portions of the system Wednesday. Metrobus and MetroAccess service were canceled entirely for Wednesday.

Most other forms of public transportation are curtailed or suspended. The Montgomery Ride On, Fairfax Connector, D.C. Circulator and MTA commuter buses are canceled. VRE and MARC will not run Wednesday, and Amtrak is offering limited service in its Northeast corridor.

No flights were leaving from Reagan National, Washington Dulles International or Baltimore-Washington International Marshall airports. All three airports said some flights had been canceled through Thursday morning.

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, and only about 3,000 remained without heat or electricity as of 6 a.m. Wednesday. But by 9 a.m., with winds picking up, utility companies were receiving a wave of new outage reports.

Montgomery, whose power lines have been hardest hit, opened two additional overnight shelters on Tuesday. 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.

Officials warned that the outages could spike again later in the day, as the storm continues and wind picks up.

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 restored 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," Ieronimo said, speaking on a cellphone that he had been using sparingly to preserve power. "It's the same snow

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