What started as chilly rain yesterday snowballed, so to speak, turning into a brief blizzard with six inches of snow in some areas, along with fender benders, power outages and a nightmare for some parents: more school closings.
Early today, mist, drizzle and sometimes freezing drizzle continued to fall in places. Roads glistened with moisture, and slush abounded. It was not clear whether temperatures, which hovered near freezing, would fall enough to produce ice, particularly on back roads, side streets and untreated pavement.
Yesterday, the wet, chunky flakes caught transportation officials off guard, and they scrambled to figure out the right cocktail of road salts to keep thoroughfares clear for this morning's rush.
"We're shifting gears. We're simultaneously salting and plowing," said Dave Buck, a Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman.
By 9 last night, school officials had canceled today's classes in Virginia's Prince William, Loudoun, Fauquier, Stafford, Madison and Culpeper counties. The D.C. school system said it will be open, as did the federal government. Federal employees will be permitted unscheduled leave.
Metro will run buses only on snow emergency routes and will add service as conditions improve, officials said yesterday. Metrorail was expected to open on time, at 5 a.m. Metro urged users of MetroAccess, the service for the elderly and disabled, to use the service only for emergencies.
D.C. officials declared a snow emergency at 3 p.m. That meant cars had to be removed from streets to make room for plows. City officials drew criticism during a storm two weeks ago, when parked cars became ice sculptures and plows couldn't access the sides of roads. The declaration was lifted at 9 p.m.
"No one knew we were going to get this much snow anywhere on the East Coast," Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said at a hastily called news conference. Fenty initially planned to spend yesterday in a cycling event but wound up talking to the cameras in the early evening.
The storm was just an echo of what it was earlier in the weekend, when it roared through the Midwest and the Plains, dumping as much as two feet of snow and leaving eight people dead.
Main roads in Maryland and Virginia were in good shape yesterday afternoon, officials said. They hoped to have subdivision streets cleared overnight.
"This is easy stuff to plow, unlike last week, where everything froze and we were stuck in ice for days," said Joan Morris, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Snow depths appeared to range from three to six inches across much of the region.
By the time the snow had essentially ended at Reagan National Airport at 3 p.m., the depth was 2.9 inches. Five- and six-inch readings were common in much of Fairfax County, with five inches in Tysons Corner and six in Centreville, according to reports compiled by the National Weather Service.
A little farther west, 7 1/2 inches was reported in Bluemont, in Loudoun, and seven inches in several spots in Fauquier, including Catlett, Opal and Warrenton.
In Maryland, snow depths of five inches or more were common in Montgomery and Howard counties. It was something of a surprise for many weather watchers.
Meteorologists had expected an area of warm air about 5,000 feet aboveground to convert the falling snow into rain, sleet or, most hazardous of all, freezing rain. But, meteorologist Brian Lasorsa said, it did not happen. "We were missing that warm layer," he said.
The wet, heavy snow turned the area into a magnificent black-and-white photo and inspired countless builders of snowmen. But heavy snow also damaged power lines. At one point late last night, electricity was out at almost 4,500 homes and businesses served by Pepco, 3,000 of them in Montgomery County. Earlier, about 5,000 customers of Dominion Virginia Power had been without electricity. Both companies said they expected problems to be limited and short-lived.
National Airport closed and reopened twice, said spokeswoman Tara Hamilton. Dulles and Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall airports remained open, but there were many delays and cancellations.
JetBlue, which came under heavy criticism after the last snowstorm for trapping hundreds of passengers on the tarmac in New York for hours, canceled 32 flights in and out of Dulles yesterday, spokeswoman Alison Eshelman said.
A United spokeswoman said the airline had canceled hundreds of flights into and out of Dulles because of the weather, in particular because of ice pellets that required continuous de-icing. The delays caused some passengers to wait for hours to get to a gate after arrival.
Ernest Gilbert, who was on United Express Flight 7388 from Jacksonville, Fla., to Washington, said passengers were stuck on the tarmac at Dulles for nearly two hours because other planes needing de-icing blocked their gate. "They finally brought a bus and we got on, but we were sitting out there in the middle of nowhere," said Gilbert, 60, of St. Simons Island, Ga., on his way to a connecting flight.
Elsewhere, a man walking alongside the C&O Canal in Georgetown slipped into the water and had to be pulled out. And salt-laden water seeping underground apparently caused a short circuit that caused cables to smolder, sending smoke from a manhole on Wisconsin Avenue, a Pepco spokesman said.
But disruptions were a distant thought at the Dupont Circle farmers market, which runs year-round on Sundays and was populated in the late morning by shoppers beaming about the storybook weather. Vendors under tarps handed out samples of steaming clam chowder, and falling snow piled on baskets of kale and collard greens.
"It really is beautiful, though I probably won't be saying that on the ride home," said cheesemaker Melanie Dietrich Cochran, who drives 100 miles from her family farm in Newburg, Pa., each week to sell ricotta, Monterey Jack and cheddar.
On unplowed city streets, motorists crawled cautiously along. Snow capped auto roofs and building cornices. Pedestrians slipped and scampered about, including joggers in shorts. Tourists gazed from the Lincoln Memorial at the milky dreamscape of the Mall.
With an orange shovel, Park Service ranger Bob Healy tried to keep two paths clear on the steps leading to the memorial -- on the left and on the right: Scrape, scrape, scrape was the soundtrack about 1 p.m. He tried to keep snow off a particular spot on the landing, a spot from which four famous words were spoken.
Scrape, scrape, scrape, and there they were: "I have a dream."