The city waited too long to begin towing cars that were blocking the way of snowplows. Some aging snow-removal equipment failed, while 25 snowplow blades remained idle due to a bureaucratic tangle. There was inadequate coordination between city officials and Metro.
The federal government called its300,000 employes in to work while snow was falling heavily. And then, after the government changed its mind and decided to let those workers go home, a key official "in the confusion of the moment" forgot to call Virginia highway officials to have them open the express lanes on heavily used Shirley Highway.
Area highway officials said the handling of last weekend's massive snowstorm generally was successful. "We're pretty much satisfied with the way it went," said David Curtin of the Maryland State Highway Administration.
But those officials acknowledge that some mistakes were made, causing more inconvenience for area residents--and especially commuters--than should have been necessary.
The federal government's decision to call in workers on Friday, Feb. 11, while the snowfall was heaviest, is regarded by transportation officials as the biggest single blunder. As a result, hundreds of cars were abandoned on the roads, which hampered plowing for days.
Another major impact was that the storm shut down the entire 39-mile Metrorail system, due mainly to ice on the 750-volt third rail. Metro is now looking at ways, some of them quite costly, to assure that this does not happen again.
Highways officials maintain that many of the public's complaints of lingering piles of snow and icy pavements grew from misconceptions of the snow-clearing operation's goal.
D.C. transportation director Thomas M. Downs said that the city's residential streets were meant to get just a single plowing, enough to open them to residents but not to make them through streets. Dead-end and narrow streets were not intended to be plowed, due to the danger of stalling the plow or damaging parked cars.
Around the area, highway departments had neither money nor plans to haul plowed snow away for disposal, as is done in other cities. Though snow was trucked away from downtown Bethesda and a few other heavily traveled spots, the plan from the beginning was to push it back as far as possible and wait for it to melt.
Downs said the city erred by waiting until Saturday to begin towing stalled vehicles to clear the way for plows, a decision he said was due to fear that passing cars might strike the trucks' crews. The delay allowed traffic to pack down the snow, which made plowing more difficult.
Downs also said the city should have had a better citizens' hotline and should have moved quickly to obtain a list of Metrobus' priority routes before the storm hit, so that they could be cleared first.
As it happened, the city did not get the list until Saturday. Almost all Metrobus service was canceled that day because of stalled cars and impassable streets. Metro officials have also called for improved coordination with local authorities.
The storm struck as a consultant was conducting a long-term reappraisal of the District's snow plan, examining such issues as the location of salt and sand dumps and patterns in which streets are plowed, to assure that plows do not waste time getting from place to place, Downs said.
Officials had hoped a major storm would hit the city before final conclusions were reached, Downs said. They got their wish.
In Prince George's County, officials said, the snow severely strained aging snow-removal equipment. Sixteen pieces of equipment failed during the cleanup, according to public works and transportation director Vaughn Barkdoll. Many subdivision streets were not plowed until Sunday or Monday, he said.
Regular Army units were not available to help in the cleanup due to laws requiring a declaration of emergency by the White House. At Andrews Air Force Base, which has 13 plows for its streets, regulations allow military personnel to help the local authorities on access roads. But no such request was made.
Help did arrive from National Guard units. After Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes declared an emergency, guardsmen using 22 four-wheel-drive vehicles transported doctors, nurses and patients around the Maryland suburbs.
In Virginia, National Guard aircraft advised authorities on snow conditions and flew people to hospitals. In a few places, armored personnel carriers were called out to blaze paths through snowdrifts. Near Gainesville, guard units rescued passengers from a bus that had gone off the road.
In Washington, guardsmen helped police respond to complaints of scattered looting in Southeast and ferried patients and medical personnel. But earlier intervention by the Pentagon kept out of commission 25 plow blades that the National Guard obtained in 1980 for just such a storm.
After the snowstorm of 1979, the city gave the National Guard plow blades and mounts for its 2 1/2-ton trucks. But in 1981, the Army vetoed the plan, citing questions of finance and liability if the plows caused damage. The National Guard still has the plows.
The past week's experience raised contrasts with how other cities cope with snow. New York got up to 2 feet of snow and suffered a similar paralysis of its roads and transit system. City authorities claimed to have brought rush-hour traffic back to something approaching normality by Tuesday.
In Philadelphia, authorities left 1,500 miles of the city's 2,500 miles of streets unplowed. Compared to Washington's plan, this may have had the effect of improving the clearing of main thoroughfares, while limiting traffic on them because vehicles remained bottled up on unplowed residential streets.
In Washington, highway officials here repeated old arguments that since the area is hit rarely by serious snowfalls, snow removal teams and residents have little practical experience in dealing with it.
Northern cities like Minneapolis get constant practice, it is pointed out. Residents are well-versed on tightly executed snow-plowing schedules and know from experience not to drive without snow tires or chains--unlike Washington residents. "When I was driving around and looking at abandoned cars," said Virginia highways official David Gehr, "ones with snow tires were the exception."
In most cities, authorities can advise companies to give workers a day off but have little direct control over whether they do. Washington is a special case in that the federal government alone can keep at home close to 300,000 people at will, a good portion of the area's total work force.
But highway officials feel this system backfired on the Friday of the storm. They blame much of the area's paralysis on the Office of Personnel Management's specific announcements that work would continue that day. OPM officials maintain that given weather forecasts that morning, they expected federal workers to be able to get in and out without causing major disruption of snowplowing. "The one thing we didn't have was a crystal ball," OPM spokesman Pat Korten said.
Korten takes responsibility for OPM's failure to assure that Shirley Highway express lanes would be opened promptly for outbound traffic once the decision was made to send people home. "In the confusion of the moment, I neglected to call the Virginia highway people," Korten said.