Freezing Rain Causes School Closure, Delays

By Eric M. Weiss and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 13; 6:51 a.m. ET

Freezing rain continued to ring the region early this morning, leaving about 50,000 homes and business without power and prompting several local school districts to delay opening by two hours|

Loudoun County schools closed altogether for the day, in deference to the slick roads that have coated the region since yesterday. Montgomery, Howard, Prince William and Fairfax county schools were all opening two hours late, along with numerous private schools and universities.

The federal government announced it would also open two hours late, with unscheduled leave policies in effect. Metrorail extended its rush hour service by one hour to accomodate commuters coming in later than usual. Officials warned that bus servce would be slow in icy areas and was being suspended in the Seven Corners neighborhood of Falls Church and the Dominion Hills neighborhood of Arlington because of slick conditions and past problems navigating those areas in bad weather.

Temperatures were rising by early morning and were expected to reach the mid-40s, washing away the ice with a rainstorm expected to continue through the day. That may give way to snow late this evening.

In the meantime, morning commuters could expect to navigate downed trees, malfunctioning traffic lights and patches of lingering ice. Many sidewalks, steps and elevated areas remained slick. An ice storm warning was in effect through 11 a.m.

About 40,000 customers were without electricity in the region as of 6 a.m. this morning, including some 23,000| in Montgomery County and more than 11,000| in Northern Virginia.

The storm covered much of the Washington region with a sheet of ice late yesterday afternoon, closing major highways, causing dozens of accidents, stranding commuters and causing some would-be voters to miss making it to the polls. One person was killed in an accident on Interstate 95 South in Northern Virginia, state police said.

"It's a mess,'' said Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller, who said police had 55 accidents to investigate at 8:30 p.m.

The freezing rain started just after 3.p.m., and it didn't take long to create one of the region's most miserable commutes in recent memory, with reports of scores of accidents, the closure of the region's largest highway interchange and motorists stuck for hours on roads that were as slick as a frozen lake. The freezing rain was expected to continue overnight, but temperatures were forecasted to rise by the morning rush hour.

One motorist left work an hour early to vote and ended up stuck in traffic for two hours; he missed voting by three minutes. For other commuters, icy roads, accidents and closed ramps made trips long and dangerous. There were reports of hours-long backups across the region. Route.50 was backed up from the Bay Bridge to Crofton. A trip from Ashburn to Springfield took 161/27.hours. Many of the 50 ramps and bridges of the Springfield interchange, which handles 430,000 vehicles a day, were closed to traffic for hours.

"It's 'motorist beware' out there," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, as he came to a rolling stop on the Beltway about 6:30.p.m. "The biggest surprise was when I turned on my wipers and it just spread a sheet of ice across the windshield, and I couldn't see a thing. I had to put my window down and stick my head out the window."

In Maryland, a six-car pileup shut down the northbound ramp of Route.210 leading to Interstate.295 in Oxon Hill for several hours, Maryland State Police spokesman Cpl. Anthony Washington said. Washington said there were no serious injuries in the accident.

Earlier in the day, the Virginia Department of Transportation was monitoring reports of storms that were expected to hit well west and north of the Washington area. But, in part because of the presidential primary, the agency sent out 278 trucks to salt major roads and highways anyway. Morris said the speed and amount of the precipitation caught everyone by surprise. "Things just went to hell in a handbasket with the roads," she said. "It started sleeting over and icing very quickly."

Things seemed to fare better in the District, where crews were out earlier treating the roads. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) who took heat for poor snow removal in the first storm of his administration, pledged to do better. Still, there were about 15 accidents in the District between 2 and 6.p.m., injuring 12 people, authorities said.

Brandon PeloquinÖ, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, said the freezing rain was caused by warmer air on top of colder Arctic air.

"We have warm air aloft. That's why rain is falling. But near the ground, the temperatures are below freezing," he said. Peloquin said he expected more freezing rain overnight until the Arctic air is pushed from the region this morning.

Virginia State Police noted about 10 mid-afternoon accidents near the Springfield interchange, where Interstate.395, Interstate.95 and the Beltway meet. Within a half-hour, spokeswoman Geller said, the number of accident reports spiked to 50.

Prince George's County police said that by 5:30.p.m., they were working at least 10 accidents across the county, one with serious injuries. Eastbound Route.50 was shut down in Anne Arundel County due to icy conditions on an overpass.

Other roads, ramps and interchanges closed or partially closed included Interstate 66 and the Beltway, I-66 and Route.29, and I-95 and the Prince William Parkway. In Maryland, Bladensburg Road was closed for a time. Most were reopened by late evening.

In Montgomery County, Route.355 was closed in both directions between Chestnut Street and Fulks Corner Avenue in Gaithersburg. Police also closed Great Seneca Highway between High Gables Drive and Kentlands Boulevard after a collision that might have been caused by ice, Montgomery Police Officer Melanie Hadley said. A portion of Route.29 near the border between Montgomery and the District in Silver Spring was closed because of an icy bridge, police said.

Prince William County police said they dealt with numerous accidents and road closures, which police spokeswoman 1st Sgt. Kim Chinn blamed on ice on ramps and bridges.

The same was true in Loudoun County, where school officials dismissed classes an hour early because of the weather. Icy conditions caused multiple accidents on several roads, including Route.28 and the Loudoun County Parkway, said Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the Loudoun Sheriff's Department. "Between, like, 3 and 4 we worked, like, 10 accidents, basically in the Sterling area ..... mostly fender benders," he said. "That's unusual, because usually we have issues in the west, with some of the more rural roads. You can't treat the roads before anything falls, and then it was unexpected."

The weather also created problems for voters heading to the polls after work. The drive to the polling place at Leisure World of Maryland in Silver Spring was "scary," said Joan Reynolds, 67. "But I was determined to vote."

In Arlington County, a regularly scheduled School Board meeting was cancelled, but polling stations at schools remained open.

Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck said crews were out all day salting Maryland roads, but bridges and overpasses were 2 to 3 degrees colder than surface roads and froze quickly when precipitation started to fall. "The reality is: The sun started going down, it clouded over and those couple degrees made all the difference,'' Buck said.

"The timing in the Washington region can't be any worse."

By late evening, conditions seemed to be improving, and road officials were getting a better handle on the situation. Route 50 eastbound had been completely opened, and VDOT had opened the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes.

The treacherous conditions led some to give up on voting altogether.

"I've been doing this commute for 20 years, and all the signs look really bad," said Marc Bergeron, a computer programmer who works in Herndon and lives in Bethesda. "When you walk where there's no salt, you slip."

He made it to the car, but, after seeing backups on the Dulles Toll Road, he gave up on the drive and on voting. He decided to take in a movie instead. "I was thinking I might be able to sneak it in," Bergeron said. "I would have voted for John McCain."

Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman, Ernesto Londoño, Josh Zumbrun, Jonathan Mummolo, Michael Laris, Allison Klein, Daniel deVise and Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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