'Thundersnow' rumbles across area

Zach Burroughs of Arlington gets a little ice with his ice cream as he hurries back to work in the District on Wednesday. More photos, B5.
Zach Burroughs of Arlington gets a little ice with his ice cream as he hurries back to work in the District on Wednesday. More photos, B5. (Ricky Carioti)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011

With rumbles of thunder more common to a summer squall, winter descended in force on the Washington region late Wednesday, icing the area down before switching to snow, extending rush hour to an agonizing night-long crawl and turning out the lights for hundreds of thousands as power lines snapped.

Just when the region would get moving again became the question of the hour for public officials still smarting from the bashing they took after last year's winter storms.

With snow forecast to continue into the early morning, there were no bold predictions about when residential streets would reopen - or whether routes would still be clogged with cars abandoned during excruciating commutes that stretched for hours.

"If this was the first big test of the year, we flunked it," said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA, after he spent two hours inching out on New York Avenue from downtown. "Wait until February, when we can expect real snow."

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) promised to "do the best we can." Prince George's County warned that it could be 12 hours after the last flake before plows liberated neighborhood streets. And Northern Virginia and Montgomery County were counting on revamped game plans designed to temper the public fury unleashed a year ago.

"One of the lessons learned from last year was to manage expectations," said John Lisle, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation.

All major school systems across the region closed for Thursday. Airlines canceled flights and cautioned passengers to call ahead before venturing to the airports. Power officials said it was too early to predict when everyone's lights would come back on. Regionwide, 396,584 customers were without electricity as of 10:30 p.m. Wednesday. And the workday was expected to start late, if at all, for tens of thousands of employees.

After a drizzly, dreary start Wednesday, the storm struck with fury beginning at mid-afternoon, causing whiteout conditions across the region and casting a wintry glaze on roads and sidewalks that sent cars spinning and people tumbling.

The criticism that turns officials timid resurfaced quickly Wednesday after the federal workforce was sent home two hours early, creating massive traffic backups on icy streets.

Even the president, returning from factory tours in Wisconsin, got a rare taste of traffic. His motorcade, which normally sails unfettered from Andrews Air Force Base to the White House, bobbed and weaved instead, tripling its travel time.

John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management, said in an e-mail that he fretted all day before sending federal workers home.

"We allowed two hour early departure . . . without a flake in sight," Berry said. "As late as 4 p.m. I was worried, with nothing happening, if the exact opposite was going to occur . . . a laughingstock story of overreaction."

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