Jim Pearsall, a visiting San Francisco businessman, pulled his scarf tighter against a chill winter wind and rummaged in a trashcan along the Mall for food to give to his friends, the pigeons. "Pigeons starve on these cold days," he said, nodding toward a few shivering birds. "Nobody is around to look after them."
Pearsall was one of only a few hardy souls to venture out in yesterday's bluster, only a day after a long-heralded winter snowstorm failed to pay a visit on the Washington area. With gusty winds and a wind chill factor that made the day's 38-degree high seem more like 5, most residents and visitors stayed indoors.
The subnormal temperatures and intermittent winds are expected to last through the middle of the week.
"It's not too cold, particularly if you're exercising," said Washington attorney Reuben Robertson. "The sun helps a lot." He and his two children were darting about the Pershing Park Ice Rink to the strains of "Hooked on Classics."
For local weather forecasters, it was a mocking sun that graced the gray winter sky. As late as Friday evening, most local television forecasters were predicting confidently that Washington would get between four and six inches of snow by Saturday afternoon. A prediction by the National Weather Service, reprinted in The Washington Post, called for accumulations of one to two inches.
This weekend's clear weather turned out to be an ironic variation of what happened last month, when local weathermen failed to predict a seven-inch snowfall that took the city by surprise one Sunday morning.
"It's very embarrassing," said Fred Knight, weather reporter for WTTG-TV Channel 5, who had predicted between one and two inches. "The first thing I did when I got up in the morning was look out the window and say, well, we did it again."
Scores of Washington area highway workers anxiously waited through Friday night for weather reports that would summon their salt trucks and plows onto the roads. But the storm veered off to the north, dumping up to a foot of snow in some parts of the Northeast. By Sunday morning, Western Maryland's Garrett County was reporting eight to 10 inches of snow, luring hundreds of exuberant skiers and snowmobilers for the year's first big wintertime romp.
Washington area officials had no firm estimate of the cost of preparing for the storm that wasn't. Virginia's Department of Highways and Transportation reported that a team of engineers and supervisors stayed on duty through Friday night and Saturday to watch for snowflakes.
"When it became apparent that there wasn't going to be anything more than a flurry, we let most of the people go home and get some rest," said dispatcher Tony Patton. "We'd been in for I guess 18 or or 20 hours, and most of us were just dragging."
Others took similar precautions. Metro readied 40 extra buses to carry fans to Saturday's Redskins game. Montgomery County prepared a platoon of salt trucks and snowplows. Untold thousands of area residents stocked their pantries against the possibility of a long winter's nap.
"It's not an exact science," said Walter Green of the National Weather Service, adding that the Washington area's Mid-Atlantic location amid mountains, ocean and bay can trip up even the best of professionals. A variation of 50 miles in a storm's path over the Appalachians, he said, can completely change the forecast.
Still, that doesn't stop the forecasters from offering their opinions. WDVM Channel 9's Gordon Barnes told viewers to expect between three and six inches.
"People take everything we say as the law, without listening to what we're really saying," said Barnes, who claims he can forecast accurately months in advance. "They heard the 3-6 inches, without hearing that if the storm moved a little to the north we would get nothing."
By yesterday afternoon, however, the snowfall predictions were only a vague memory, forgotten in the wind's sharp embrace. At RFK stadium, an estimated 3,000 Redskins fans waited outdoors through the night and into the morning in the hope of buying tickets for next week's national football conference championship game. All the tickets were sold out shortly after 1 p.m.
And for some, like Harry Ware, a carwash attendant in Crystal City, the day's cold weather was only a cruel addition to an everyday routine. "I'd rather be doing anything than be out here in this cold," said Ware, warming his hands with a cup of hot chocolate between cars. "I'd rather be with a pretty girl and a fifth of scotch. But I've got to make a living."