D.C. officials ponder how to respond to next snowstorm

Commuters got stuck and power went out across the Washington region as snow and ice fell Wednesday afternoon and night.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 8:40 PM

Still stunned by the chaos the Jan. 26 snowstorm created on area roads, District officials said Monday they may ask residents and downtown office workers to stay indoors and temporarily evacuate some major thoroughfares should another severe winter storm slam the area at rush hour.

Under the proposal, hammered out by District leaders last week after evaluating the city's storm response, the District would use local media or the emergency alert system to recommend that people "shelter in place" if roads become overwhelmed by traffic or impassable because of snow, ice or downed trees and power lines.

And when traffic grinds to a halt on major streets during bad weather, the District may request that motorists quickly move their vehicles onto side streets so road crews can treat heavily traveled commuter routes.

"It was agreed that the District should explore new messaging advising commuters and residents that sheltering in place is a legitimate alternative to entering congested and snow-covered roadways," said Terry Bellamy, interim director of the D.C. Department of Transportation. "If a portion of drivers had opted to wait out the [Jan. 26] storm, crews across the region may have had more success in clearing the roadways."

Bellamy made his comments during a D.C. Council hearing Monday that focused on how the District was virtually immobilized for several hours Jan. 26 after heavy, wet snow fell at rush hour. The storm, which also affected many suburban communities, has left elected officials and emergency managers worried that winter-weather and evacuation plans may be inadequate.

"We couldn't get out of our city," said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation. "When our city is paralyzed, a portion of this country is paralyzed. . . . It's unnerving that with four and half inches of snow, a whole city can be shut down like this."

The hearing featured testimony from District transportation, public works and homeland security officials as well representatives of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

William O. Howland, director of the D.C. Department of Public Works, said city road crews were well equipped to handle the storm but were left flat-footed by gridlock and trees and power lines brought down by the wet snow.

During the storm, the city received 700 calls about fallen trees or branches, some of which blocked eight of the city's major routes, Howland said. In addition, transportation crews had to remove 112 vehicles abandoned during the storm, half of them on the Suitland Parkway. And at the height of the storm, 217 WMATA or county buses were stuck or stalled across the region, WMATA officials said.

"It was a confluence of all these events that led to the traffic," Howland said.

Under questioning from Wells, District officials acknowledged that some steps could have been taken to alleviate some of the congestion.

During winter storms, the District's 70 traffic control officers are reassigned to help plow snow. But transportation officials said they did not formally request that D.C. police step in to try to direct traffic off heavily congested intersections. In the next storm, Howland said, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has agreed to use special operations officers and cadets to help with traffic control.

If conditions become too bad, Howland said, city officials will try to coordinate with their suburban counterparts to issue shelter-in-place recommendations. Until now, he said, those messages were largely reserved for man-made disasters.

"We will try to get the message out that maybe you wait a few hours before you leave," Howland.

But the use of messages to urge people to shelter in place in severe weather makes some emergency managers nervous.

Millicent D. Williams West, head of the city's Department of Homeland Security, said she will be working with officials to make sure the recommendations are distinguished from more dire alerts she wants reserved for life-threatening emergencies that have the "potential to impact residents beyond just that day."

"We will do it [for snow] in a non-threatening way," West said. "We don't want people to become immune to us asking them to do certain things based on the fact we are crying wolf."

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