Wind-whipped snow, much of it blowing into treacherous drifts in the hardest-hit suburbs, trapped traffic and caused the early closing of schools and government offices yesterday in the worst storm of the season here.
Monumental traffic jams stalled home-ward-bound commuters throughout the afternoon and evening as streets ice up and visibility was reduced to a few yards by winds driving the snow almost horizontally in gusts up to 42 miles an hour.
Accumulation of snow on the ground ranged from about two inches in downtown Washington to more than seven inches in parts of Prince George's County by early last night, with drifts as high as three feet. Parts of Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties reported accumulations of up to 10 inches.
Although National Airport offically stayed open, it closed its two main runways alternately for brief periods to salt forzen surfaces. Also, many flights were canceled to Boston, Hartford, Providence and the New York area because of even more severe weather there.
Eastern Air Lines' hourly New York shutfle closed after only one flight at 7 a.m.
The snow and bitterly cold wind here were part of a massive 500-mile-wide storm system plowing north up the Atlantic coast into New York and New England last night.
National Weather Service forecasters said the center of the storm actually skirted the Washington area, leaving heavier accumulations of snow in prince George's and Anne Arundel counties east of the city and lesser amounts to the west.
Forecasters predicted a tapering off of the snow to flurries last night with continued frigid temperatures under variably cloudy skies today with highs only in the 20s.
"It's right rough out there," said John Allen, 50, a Wonder Bread truck driver who had been driving all day in far Southeast Washington, watching the snow gradually cover the roads that had been carefully salted by D.C. Transportation Department trucks earlier in the day.
Late afternoon commuters reported taking hours to get home. Traffic at downtown intersections was tied into knots as traffic lights became stuck in the extreme cold.
In the suburbs, drifts of snow blocked some roads. Police closed a six-mile stretch of Rte. 27 (Damascus Road) in upper Montgomery County for an hour after at least 30 cars were stranded by blowing drifts. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge was closed twice during the day because of traffic accidents.
Prince George's County police said motorists were abandoning their cars and trying to hitchhike home on Rte. 50. Three tractor trailer rigs were reported jackknified on Rte. 50 and I-95.
"The drifting (snow) across secondary roads is two to three feet," said county Police Sgt. Bernard Schwartz.
Ron Dorsey of Dorsey & Son Dry Cleaners on Old Branch Road in Princie George's County, said in mid-afternoon he had taken in only $6.75 in business because of the bad roads.
"Snow's death on the dry cleaning business," he said. "I might as well else up and go home."
Several suburban counties including Prince George's Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll in Maryland and Loudoun, Fauquier, Prince William and Stafford in Virginia, closed their schools for the day.
Other closer in schools opened in the morning but closed an hour or two earlier than usual. District of Columbia schools remained open all day.
Though federal government workers werelnot given an early release from work, Mayor Walter E. Washington authorized individual city department and agency heads to dismiss employes at their discretion in the early afternoon. The District Building, which houses the mayor's office and numerous other agencies, emptied almost immediately.
The fine, granular snow started falling Sunday night and, except for a brief pause before dawn yesterday, kept up until well into the night last night.
Despite its duration and intensity, accumulations were not great, especially in the city. "It was a rather fine snow with very little moisture," explained National Weather Service observer Walter Green at National Airport last night.
The weather service originally had predicted that the snow would taper off in the early afternoon, "but the storm (carrying the snow) moved up the coast slowly than we expected," Green said.
Many federal government workers stranded for hours in evening traffic jams complained that authorities had not released them from work earlier.
The D.C. Snow Emergency Center, which recommends such early releases was not necessary.
Also, said Paul Wolf of the emergency center, several suburban counties had asked that normal releases time be kept in effect to give road crews adequate time to clear major commuter routes.
Wolf said that under snow emergency procedures, the emergency enter must first recommend and early release to the mayor's office, the administrative office of the White House and the Interagency Advisory Group of the Civil Service Commission. Those three entities must then concur in the recommendation and jointly issue the early release.
Mayor Washington's authorization of discretionary early release yesterday was a unilateral action affecting only District government employes.
Even some track switches for the Metro train system froze in the severe cold, delaying subwayservice during parts of the day.
Long-distance telephone circuits were jammed in Northern Virginia as thousands of travelers attempted to call their homes and businesses.
While the snow whipped through the city, the sun at times shone through in the afternoon, creating a strange speckled effect on the streets.
The snow also hit Southwest Virginia, further crippling that already snow-burdened area.
Gov. John N. Dalton declared an emergency in rural Buchanan County where some 1,000 families reportedly have been isolated earlier snow and flooding.