In Washington, the rumor of snow often flies faster than the fact.

Long before even the first, tentative flurries dusted the suburbs late yesterday morning, Washington area residents were on full alert for the predicted 1 to 3 inches of snow -- snow that did not even begin falling in many places until well after dark and that forecasters said would end this morning.

But the rumors were indeed fact and by midnight there was an inch of snow at Dulles International Airport and a half-inch at National Airport.

Though flurries in the area were light, the snow fell steadily and early today weather forecasters were standing by their 1-to-3-inch predictions.

"We are right on track" in the amount of snow accumulation, a forecaster said just after midnight.

But he predicted there would be few snowmen to herald the fact. "The snow is too dry and powdery to even pack into good snowballs," the forecaster lamented.

Area police reported early today that most main roads were clear, although less-traveled secondary roads were icy in many locations.

Snow tires and chains were put on many police and fire emergency vehicles, but officials said the snow had caused no serious accidents or traffic problems.

No closings or late openings because of the snow had been announced early today. Officials, some of whom had jumped yesterday at just the talk of snow, seemed to be taking a more wait-and-see attitude.

As the threat of a Big Blast raced round the Beltway Thursday, Bowie Race Course officials, notorious for caution in the face of such forecasts, canceled their nine-race program at 9:45 a.m.

In the District, the Public Works Department's 88 snowplows and salt-spreading trucks were stocked and ready to go by Wednesday night. The Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation had road crews spreading chemicals and abrasives on major highways early yesterday to combat any icy conditions, and in Annapolis, there was more salt to be seen than snow.

Snow emergency plans went into effect at 10 a.m. yesterday in Frederick County and at 11 a.m. in Montgomery, Washington and Carroll counties.

But in Montgomery County, the alert was lifted two hours later, and state police said no accidents had been reported. By midday, the precipitation ceased and generally blew away.

"The crocuses are about ready to bloom," Maryland State Trooper Steve Aaron in Easton joked shortly after noon.

By late afternoon, state police dispatchers reported "just a trace of snow" in outlying Maryland counties and in the Shenandoah Valley. When reports of flurries outside the Beltway resumed in the early evening, it was almost a relief.

There was little relief elsewhere in the country, however. The winter storm that dumped 15 inches of snow on Kansas Wednesday made a forced march across the Midwest and the Great Plains toward the eastern seaboard, with freezing winds, thundershowers, sleet and snow in its vanguard.

Thunderstorms, freezing rain and rain mixed with sleet battered the southern states from Mississippi to the Carolinas. At least six deaths have been attributed to weather-related accidents across the country since Tuesday.

The frigid air that swept into the Northeast ahead of the snow front chased many of the homeless off the streets and into public shelters.

Mitch Snyder, spokesman for the Community for Creative Non-Violence, said 100 to 300 persons more than usual were being housed at the group's shelter at 425 Second St. NW last night. Nightly counts at the shelter are taken about 3 a.m.

"The number is up dramatically," Snyder said, adding that between 800 and 900 persons were expected at the shelter last night, compared with the 600 to 700 persons normally housed there.

"We expect we will have 1,000 to 1,200 persons a night soon, if the bad weather continues," he said.

The National Weather Service predicted eventual accumulations of 1 to 3 inches, with the snow ending sometime this morning. Temperatures are expected to rise slowly over the weekend, reaching the mid-40s Monday.

Expectation of the snow yesterday caused the greatest inconvenience through most of the day, with workers at some agencies leaving early. At rush hour, however, many of the same commuters who may have grumbled at the early departures by others were counting their blessings, because traffic in much of the area was lighter than usual.

"Looking out at New York Avenue, it looks like 9:30 at night," marveled one police officer.

Shortly before 11 a.m., one subway train near the Cleveland Park station turned recalcitrant, causing a brief delay, but as Metro General Manager Carmen E. Turner put it, "Cold weather is as hard on transit vehicles as it is on cars."

Metro has equipped half of its buses with air blowers to warm the engine to ease the strain of start-cranking on batteries, and recently bolstered subway cars, which are susceptible to cold weather, in an attempt to ensure that Metro transits glorious, snow or no.