'Thundersnow' rumbles across area

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; A01

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."

Ice, and not so much the volume of traffic, caused the commuter mayhem. Although most major arteries in the region had been pre-treated with salt, the rain that preceded the snow washed most of that away, leaving cold bare pavement to conspire with dropping temperatures to form ice.

In Rockville, almost every car without four-wheel drive seemed to be spinning out. Many cars on side roads were stuck without enough traction to escape the ice. The vehicles capable of moving found their paths blocked by those that could not. The problems were compounded when downed power lines shut down traffic signals.

Metro and suburban transit agencies suspended all bus service after road conditions made it too dangerous to continue operations. Metro planned to monitor the roads to determine when to resume service Thursday.

Spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the transit authority did not anticipate suspending rail service. Metro was going to run trains along its subway lines throughout the night to help keep the third rails, which power the trains, free of ice and snow, she said.

In the Westmoreland Hills neighborhood of Bethesda, drivers gave up on navigating the hills, abandoned their cars at the side of the road and trudged home. A thunderstorm accompanying heavy snow in Bethesda led to several transformers blowing out, darkening the neighborhoods behind Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and periodically filling the sky with an eerie blue-green glow.

On the Metro station platform at Friendship Heights, several families with babies and young children walked along the red tiles and sat on the benches, having taken shelter in the station because they had lost power at their Chevy Chase houses.

"We'll stick it out here and then either go to a friend's house or try to get into a hotel," said Carla Seeley, who carried her toddler up and down the escalator for entertainment.

Most school systems across the region planned to be closed Thursday, though District officials were hopeful that opening two hours late would suffice.

Lisle said that if the snow ended not long after midnight, major roads could be cleared by morning, but the mayor said that until it did, predictions of when residential streets could reopen were pointless.

"It's hard to know," Gray said. "We don't know what the accumulation will be and, secondly, we don't know about ice."

Residents in some areas, such as Montgomery, could track the progress of the plows on a county Web site.

"We've revamped our Web application so you can see what has been plowed and what has not," county spokesman Patrick Lacefield said. "It has an explanation of the game plan and indications of what people can expect, depending on varying amounts of snowfall."

In Northern Virginia, the Virginia Department of Transportation changed its snow removal strategy after complaints that followed last year's storms. VDOT, which has responsibility for most residential streets, now is sending crews into the subdivisions at the outset of a storm. In the past, it waited until two inches of snow had accumulated.

"We already are in many of the subdivisions," VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris said late Wednesday. "We're going to stay on top of that."

The conspiracy of stuff that so often makes for winter misery is likely to be in full effect Thursday: Many road surfaces were cold enough to freeze what landed on contact; what landed wasn't fluffy white snow that was easily swept away; and the air was just warm enough to keep changing the mix until nightfall ushered in the true cold.

This is the recurring fate of life on what weather forecasters call the "fault line," that invisible border between the rain that typically falls on more southern states and the snow that's more normal in the northern states. Here, the two weather cultures meet, and this storm was a perfect example of why that often is less than Currier-and-Ives pretty.

As the storm approached, utilities said they had added more contract crews and staff to help grapple with the snow expected to fall through the night.

Pepco was reporting 193,967 power outages, more than 100,000 of them in Montgomery. Dominion Virginia Power said 140,314 customers were in the dark in Northern Virginia. Baltimore Gas and Electric reported 62,303 customers without power in Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Pepco spokesman Clay Anderson said the power company had added more crews at service centers in Rockville and Forestville that would be on extended shifts as long as the storm lasted. Customer service staff planned to work through the night, he said.

Dominion spokeswoman Le-Ha Anderson said the company had deployed extra crews near Warrenton and in Loudoun.

"We expect a very heavy, wet snow that could cause some operational problems, particularly in the western region," she said.

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