Dark, gray clouds filled the sky. Gusts of wind sent leaves and dust billowing into the air. But all this buildup brought little relief for the drought-stricken region: By the time yesterday's thunderstorm had passed, only a fraction of an inch of rain had fallen.
"It does not hurt, but it is not going to solve our problems," said National Weather Service meteorologist John Margraf. "It just was not enough."
Unfortunately, yesterday's storm--which dropped 0.02 inches of rain at Reagan National Airport and 0.08 at Dulles International Airport--probably will be the only significant rain in the region through at least Friday, Weather Service officials predicted. Baltimore-Washington International Airport recorded just 0.04 inches of rain, though showers delayed the start of the Detroit Tigers-Baltimore Orioles game at Camden Yards for 30 minutes.
On the Mall in Washington, on area golf courses and in suburban yards, yesterday's burst of rain--no matter how brief--was much welcomed.
Cynthia Miller, 44, of Accokeek, was at Hains Point to celebrate her son's 10th birthday with a game of miniature golf. A plastic duck sat in a dried-out water trap. A patch of sunflowers drooped 180 degrees toward the ground.
"I've prayed for rain, and it looks like He's trying," she said, as the storm approached. "But not hard enough."
In Potomac, Patti Johnson and her two young children stayed out in their yard as the rain came down. With the mandatory ban on watering lawns in Maryland, the children have been missing out on a favorite summer pastime of playing under the sprinkler.
"That is a relief," she said. Yet Johnson's grass is still brown, her impatiens and other flowers droopy.
Ed McCreanor, 50, of Riverdale, was hoping the rain would not let up.
"I don't care about my grass; I just want to get wet," McCreanor said. "I like to jog in the rain, so this drought has kept me out of shape."
The region has received about 15 inches less than the normal precipitation since July 1998, according to the Weather Service, making the drought one of the worst of the century. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman declared all of West Virginia and 33 counties surrounding the state--including Loudoun--farm emergency areas last week, clearing the way for farmers to apply for low-interest government loans. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) imposed statewide water restrictions, including a ban on lawn watering and outdoor car washing.
With the restrictions, many Maryland carwash managers had hoped to see a torrent of new business. But some said yesterday's showers, though short and spotty, kept cars away.
The Rockville area's sprinkles came about 10:30 a.m., and a "heavy, one-minute rain" about 1:30 p.m. "kind of killed it," said Richard Weber Jr., manager of College Plaza Shell on Rockville Pike. The few people who did come in "wanted to get the salt off their cars from the beach."
Samuel McClary, manager of Touchdown Car Wash in Capitol Heights, said he was hoping the restrictions would put business over the usual Sunday draw of 15 to 20 cars. With two hours until closing yesterday, McClary had seen four.
"It's been cloudy all day, and I think people think, 'I won't get my car washed today' " if it might rain, he said.
Jim Farrell, cashier at Flower Hill Amoco in Gaithersburg, said the station's carwash is now adjusted to use more recycled water, to meet the restriction of 80 percent recycled water that was imposed by Glendening but relaxed on Saturday. But only a few people showed yesterday, compared with the typical 40 on a sunny Sunday.
"We've had rain on and off," Farrell said. "Not many people wash their car when it's threatening rain or raining."
Even tougher water restrictions were imposed in Winchester and surrounding Frederick County, Va., over the weekend, though it was not directly weather related. A water main burst, nearly draining the city's emergency reservoir.
An 18-foot split in the city's main pipe early Saturday resulted in the loss of more than 6 million gallons of precious water. Emergency declarations by the city and county forbade nearly all water consumption; restaurants made do with paper plates and plastic forks to conserve.
"It means you can use your toilet, and that's about it," said Winchester Mayor Larry Omps. "But people have been amazingly cooperative."
After the rupture was patched Saturday, officials said they were adding about 100,000 gallons an hour to the town reservoir, which needs to hold 7 million gallons to meet daily needs. Omps said the emergency restrictions will probably be lifted today.
The dry conditions have resulted in high to very high fire danger in central and western Maryland, Northern Virginia, the West Virginia panhandle and adjacent southern Pennsylvania. A 700-acre forest fire burning in Virginia yesterday created a hazard for motorists on Interstate 81 between Lexington and Roanoke.
Forecasters did offer some good news yesterday. The 60-day outlook prepared by the National Weather Service for the region suggests "above normal" amounts of rain. But even if the prediction is accurate, the drought conditions will probably remain.
"Unless we have a tropical storm, we will still be in a crisis for the rest of the year," Margraf said.
Staff writers Dan Eggen and Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Ahmed Mohmed, of Alexandria, and a fellow vendor take cover at the Georgetown Flea Market during a brief shower. Many vendors left early.