How did five inches of snow turn into a disaster?

Thursday, January 27, 2011; 8:32 PM

NO OFFICIAL EXCUSE, rationalization or explanation can justify the terrible - and in many instances terrifying - commute that many motorists and bus riders experienced Wednesday night. That the nation's capital was brought to its knees by what in some places was no more than five inches of snow from a long-predicted storm is more than embarrassing and infuriating: It should also be cause for real worry about the region's ability to cope with far more serious threats to its safety.

In the aftermath of the late-afternoon winter storm that swept the region, officials were advancing a number of explanations for the hellish circumstances that gridlocked area roads and trapped commuters in their cars for as long as 13 hours: Rain washed away the preconditioning salt treatment of roads. A layer of ice formed and was followed by an intense period of heavy snowfall. Add in the rush-hour timing and the notorious inability of many Washington residents to drive - or even show some common sense - in the snow, and some problems were inevitable.

But to say that the area was "well-prepared," as D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) boasted Wednesday night, is a serious misreading of events. In the hours before the storm, officials - and not just in the city - were sanguine in their assessments that roads would be ready. And when conditions quickly deteriorated, those same officials were caught flat-footed. Where was the useful real-time information to the public so that someone heading home to Maryland from a D.C. office would know to take Metro or, even better, stay put for a while? Where were the emergency responders as people sat trapped and fearful in their cars on the George Washington Memorial Parkway? Why weren't police dispatched to key chokepoints where traffic was at a standstill? Motorists who sat for hours northbound on 16th Street had to wonder why there wasn't some way to take advantage of the largely underused southbound lanes. It is simply inconceivable that in this age of wondrous technology and instant messaging the best government could do was to tell people to turn on the radio and hope to hear something useful.

Some second-day questions are obvious. Is a two-hour early release for federal workers sufficient considering that traffic, even on a good day, can be horrendous? Could the release times be staggered? Did the city's failure to declare a snow emergency lull people into thinking there would be less of a problem? Unlike in past snowstorms, Metrorail performed well. But the Metrobus system proved more problematic, with 70 buses becoming stuck, inconveniencing not only their passengers but also blocked motorists. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of area residents remained without power Thursday and were being told - if they could get through - not to expect resumption of service before 11 p.m. on Friday. That, too, is not acceptable, and we would urge local officials to work with the power companies to speed the return of service and hold them accountable if it is not back when promised.

It is unlikely that the set of conditions that caused Wednesday's nightmarish commute will recur in the exact same way. But that's more reason than ever for local and federal officials to figure out exactly what went wrong, so that they can devise a system that is nimble enough to deal with any challenge. They obviously have a long way to go.

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