As blizzards buried much of the Eastern United States yesterday, the Washington area endured four to eight inches of snow and sleet that closed school, tangled traffic, embarrassed weather forecasters and provided fresh-fallen excuses for a three-day weekend.
As usual, the snowfall created a liittle poetry for some, tried the patience of many more, and posed the inevitable Washington question: How can it be that snow in any proportion manages to reduce the city to the dignity of a plucked chicken?
As many capital residents could ruefully bear witness, the city "simply doesn't have the equipment or manpower or money to do all 1,000 miles of streets in the District of Columbia," said Traffic Operations Chief Gary Wendt.
While the main roads in the city and its suburbs remained clear after snow-plows worked through th night, many side roads in residential areas were impassable. In some neighborhoods, a spontaneous block-party approach to solving the situations arose, as neighbors helped to dig each other out and other motorists who had managed to liberate their cars provided free taxi service to those who could not.
It was the third snow and freezing rain storm in a week's time here and the second Friday in a row that the weather gave government workers a rationale for a three-day weekend. According to the National Weather Service, four inches of fresh snow fell at National Airport while eight inches fell at Dulles International Airport. So far, the forecasters said, 10.4 inches of snow had fallen in the month of January, the greatest accumulation in a single month since December, 1973.
While the forecasters were full of statistics yesterday, they were falling short of explanations for the lack of warning most residents received about the storm.
"You have to remember how badly we were treated those times we said it would snow and it rained," said one forecaster. "This time the situation looked just about the same, so they decided to play it down and bingo! You can blow a partly cloudy and nobody cares, but get it wrong when it snows and you really screw up."
"Nature is very fickle sometimes," said another forecaster. "Unfortunately, we don't always catch the change. We apologize and promise to do better."
Government workers took an individualistic approach to the question of trying to get to their jobs, with such federal departments as Commerce, Interior and Agriculture reporting a fifth to a third of their employees absent.
In one agency withing HEW, for in instance, a supervisor who made it to her desk from the far reaches of upper Northwest Washington received a call from a coworker who lives in the same neighborhood. There was no chance, said the coworker, of the getting to the office - the roads were impassable.
The same laissez-faire attitude prevailed in the D.C. public schools, which were the only ones to open yesterday, although they opened one-hour late.
Although no overall school attendance figures were compiled by the D.C. school administration, spot checks of about a dozen schools showed that about two-thirds to three-quarters of the students were absent, while at other schools only about half the faculty had shown up.
We're just glorified baby-sitters today," said Selma Lewis, a kindergarten, teacher at Stevens Elementary School, where only 45 out of 243 students showed up for classes. One of those who did show up was President Carter's daughter Amy, who showed up for classes at 10 a. m. but left a few minutes later when one of those who failed to attend turned out to be her teacher.
D.C. School Supt. Vincent Reed said yesterday that he decided to keep the schools open even when the suburban jurisdictions were closed because most city school children walk to school and the city is not hindered by the problem of getting school buses through the snow.
Reed said that another reason he kept the schools open was the 40,000 low-income students who get free breakfasts in school and the 75,000 who receive a free lunch. "I'm afraid that many of those kids will not be eating well."
In the Northern Virginia suburbs, however, the considerations are very different. According to Barry Morris, assistant superintendant for school operations in Fairfax County, the condition of secondary and subdivision roads is of particular importance because that is where the school buses must go to pick up the majority of their students.
According to Morris, patrols were dispatched in radio-equipped, four wheel drive vehicles between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. to patrol county roads and check on their condition. The patrols communicate with each other by radio, Morris said, and try to put together an overall picture of the road conditions.
The county director of transportation, Morris and the head of the support services department then make a recommendation to Schol Supt. S. John Davis, who makes the final decision.
Local radio stations ere notified at 5:20 a.m., yesterday morning that the schools would be closed, Morris said. "It was a very clear-cut case," Morris said, "There was no hope of getting the main roads clear in time for the buses to start rolling."
Not all of the drivers who did get rolling got to where they were going, however, and the Beltway and Rte. 270 in Maryland were strewn with abandoned cars and seething motorists waiting for their cars to be towed. Marlys East of Oakton, for one, was making her daily commute to Columbia, Md. when a Volkswagen pushed her off the road and into a stand of trees.
"Five years I've been making this commute," East said, "five years, and nothing has ever happened. She looked gravely at her branch-strewn Buick. "What in the world am I going to tell my husband?"
"Now don't you worry, sweetie, we'll have you out in no time," said Mike Guiffre, whose tow truck had showed up only minutes after the Volkswagen had beat a hasty retreat. For Guiffre, the Buick was his 45th customer since the snow started falling, and he had, he said, conducted a survey in search of an explanation. "It's women drivers," he said. "No doubt about it. Forty of the 45 were women drivers."
East paid her $35, rolled her eyes heavenward and lurched back out on to the highway, but a number of those who tried to get into work decided instead on alternate means of transportation.
"You'd think this was a lifeboat, not a taxicab" said Milton Jones as a seemingly endless number of wet-footed, bedraggled commuters piled out of his cab near the House office buildings. "They just kept piling in."
While many would-be travelers seem to solve the transportation problem by staying at home - Metrobus spokesman reported both ridership and drivership lighter than usual - those traveling northward from Washingon toward New England were destined to encounter little more than frustration.
All three New York airports were closed as well as airports in Philadelphia, Hartford and Providence, at least spokeswoman said "we're running nothing north," and the situation was dramatically complicated by the derailment of the Conrail freight train that brought a halt to all passenger service between Washington and Baltimore for most of the day.
Dulles International Airport, however, was open all day yesterday and a number of flights destined for New York City were diverted there. National Airport was closed briefly yesterday afternoon to clear mounting slush from the runways before it had a chance to freeze, an airport spokesman said.
The fear of freezing occupied many area officials yesterday as dropping temperatures presaged icy roads. A Montgomery County spokesperson announced that the entire complement of county snow removal crews will plow all residential streets back to the curb line at 7 a.m. today. "That means" the spokesperson said, "that some cars parked along the streets may be plowed in and driveways may be blocked" unless cars are removed.
More than driveways were blocked in the Western Maryland Counties of Garrett and Allegheny yesterday, when the are was all but shut down under a totoal of over 30 inches of snow, including the 11 inches which fell yesterday. Police in both countries urged motorists last night to avoid all but essential travel.
But in Washington, amid the stalled cars and slushy roads and delayed buses, a romance of sorts still flourished among even those the snow had hindered. "The snow is like a beautiful woman," said Shin Shinsaku, as he tried vainly to dig his car out of a drift. "It proves difficult at times, but in the end, it's still lovely to look at."
The forecast for today, according to the National Weather Service, calls for partly cloudy skies, with cold wind and high temperatures ranging from 38 to 43. Sunday should also be cloudy with continued cold and high temperatures ranging from 34 to 39. The chance or snow is hardly worth mentioning, the forecasters say.