For D.C. area commuters stuck in snow, 'it just felt hopeless'

Dozens of Washington residents gathered in Dupont Circle on Wednesday evening for a snowball fight during the biggest snowstorm of the winter.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 28, 2011; 12:00 AM

On the day after what officials called the Washington region's worst traffic fiasco since Sept. 11, 2001, fingers pointed at a slew of causes: untreated roads, fallen trees, abandoned cars, unheeded or inaccurate forecasts. Then there were the usual reasons Washington deals so poorly with winter weather: the area's location on the edge dividing rain and snow in many storms, an inadequate supply of plow trucks, and poor coordination among local jurisdictions.

But Wednesday's storm added another factor to the mix, as some local officials blamed the federal government's decision for creating an early rush hour at exactly the time the snow came down in an unusually intense burst.

"I wonder how many of these we have to go through before we learn that if we keep people until 4 p.m. and dump people into the middle of the chaos, this is going to happen," said David F. Snyder, vice mayor of Falls Church, who has focused on emergency preparedness as a member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

John Lisle, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation, said the government should have pushed workers to leave earlier. "Looking back, I wish we had told people at 3 o'clock, 'The storm's going to hit at 4 p.m. If you don't leave by then, you may not get home,' " he said.

But John Berry, the federal government's personnel management director, stood by his decision to release workers at 3 p.m. "The reality is, with human nature being what it is, many people did not choose to take advantage of the option" to leave early, he said. "They looked out the window, saw no snow and said, 'I can wait until I see snow.' "

The storm had been predicted all week, but hours of rain washed salt and other chemicals off roads that had been treated Tuesday night. Then, just as hundreds of thousands of federal workers were being sent home early, a sudden dump of heavy, wet snow - no more than half a foot - turned major thoroughfares into icy, slushy parking lots.

Cars and buses stalled along 16th Street NW and Connecticut Avenue, four tractor-trailers jackknifed on the Capital Beltway, and wreckers towed 17 trucks near the Wilson Bridge, scenes duplicated by the dozens on major commuter routes from Annapolis to Dulles.

As frustrating minutes turned into hours, commuters by the hundreds ran out of gas or just walked away from their cars, making it even more difficult for plows and tow trucks to get to major arteries such as the Beltway, Interstate 66 and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

"It just felt hopeless," said Shaun Gholston, 33, who said it took him 11 hours and 19 minutes to drive from Rockville to his Capitol Hill home, a commute that typically takes 55 minutes. "Like I was never going to get home."

Wednesday began with a burst of bravado, as D.C. transportation officials said they were ready for the storm. They, like their suburban counterparts, had spent the night treating major roads with chemicals to keep them from freezing. But then came the rain. Then the temperature slipped below freezing, the rain turned to snow and the federal workers hit the roads. Re-salting the roads was now impossible. In the District, traffic control officers were unavailable to man intersections because they had been ordered to drive plows, which immediately got stuck in traffic.

By 4:30 p.m. in Maryland, a tractor-trailer had jackknifed on the inner loop of the Beltway near River Road, blocking several lanes. Just as a wrecker pulled that rig away, three more tractor-trailers broke down near the Beltway and Interstate 270.

One of the truck drivers walked away from his rig, making it more difficult to tow. Maryland State Police in Montgomery County ended up towing 180 vehicles from the Beltway and I-270. Montgomery police towed several hundred vehicles from local roads and were still doing so Thursday afternoon, officers said.

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