Warming temperatures and the promise of full Metrobus and subway service today are expected to hasten winter-weary Washington's slow return to normalcy, forecasters and transportation officials said yesterday.
The good news comes after freezing rains early yesterday produced massive new traffic disruptions throughout the area as roadways became veneered with ice. Hundreds of fender-bender accidents tied up main roads, and Metrobus service was suspended for more than two hours during the critical morning rush period, stranding thousands of work-bound commuters.
Forecasters at the National Weather Service called for more rain through the rest of the week and generally mild temperatures.
The temperature reached a high of 43 degrees at 4:15 p.m. yesterday at National Airport and was expected to rise into the 50s today.The outlook for the rest of the week calls for considerable cloudiness with a chance of occasional rain each day through Monday. Daytime temperatures should be in the 50s and nighttime temperatures in the high 30s.
Unless rains become heavy and temperatures remain abnormally high, the snow should melt gradually with little risk of flooding, the weather service said.
Dry air from the Blue Ridge mountains drifted into the region last night and dissipated the gray overcast that had lingered above the area for most of the day. The dry air helped create a dense fog that made visibility near zero by 9:30 p.m. at National, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International airports, as well as throughout the area, a weather forecaster said. Some flights were delayed as a result of the fog the forecaster said.
With much of the area still locked in snow from Monday's near-record storm, life was still far from normal yesterday.
Most schools remained closed yesterday. Many banks were closed and some others that did open, closed early, creating money shortages for many residents.
Food stores were generally open, but supply trucks had difficulty reaching some. Mail delivery was curtailed in parts of both the city and the suburbs for the second straight day.
Absenteeism in the federal and District governments ran high -- up to 50 percent in some agencies -- as many employes never left home and others gave up on the way to work.
Tempers flared. Drivers fought over scarce parking spaces, and nerves became generally frayed as the relentless winter began to sour on people.
Twelve persons were treated at one hospital, Washington Adventist in Takoma Park, for injuries suffered in fights over parking spaces. One woman's nose was broken, and a man was hit on the head with a shovel.
Area hospitals reported treating more than 19 snow-related heart attack cases since midnight Sunday, six of them fatal.
Rush hour was strung out from 6 a.m. to well after noon, in part because of the suspension of bus service and a request by Mayor Marion S. Barry that nonessential District employes refrain from coming to work until the ice melted from roadways and bus service resumed.
Metrobus operations chief Thomas Trimmer ordered all 1,500 buses in the area to stop at 6:23 a.m. after he said police in all jurisdictions reported dangerous ice conditions on most roadways.
Rain falling through the area froze as soon as it hit road surfaces, turning streets into temporary skating rinks.
Trimmer said he was in a radioequipped Metro staff car on Rte. 50 near the Capital Beltway in suburban Maryland at 6 a.m. when he saw a multiple-car pileup due to the icy conditions.
"I consulted with police and with our own Metro dispatch office, and confirmed that the conditions I saw out there on Rte. 50 were the same as in Virginia and the District."
After this, Trimmer said, he ordered all 800 buses then on the street to stop and to withhold dispatching 700 more until later.
As the temperature gradually rose into the upper 30s, the ice on the roads began to melt and traffic started to move again. Trimmer ordered buses in most parts of the District to resume operations at 8:40 a.m. and in all areas in Maryland and Virginia by 9:10 a.m.
"I was not pleased that we failed to get our passengers to work in a timely fashion," Trimmer said, "but I was pleased that there were no serious accidents."
He said there were only four bus-related accidents during the morning, including a collision of two buses on Rock Creek Church Road NW in which one driver suffered minor injuries.
Area police, especially in the suburbs, reported countless minor accidents, tie-ups and general disruption.
Cars skidded out of control on the Beltway in Virginia, slamming into snow banks. Traffic was reported at an absolute standstill for an hour or more on other parts of the Beltway.
A 23-year-old Laurel man, identified by Montgomery County police as Frederick Lewis Knapp, was killed as he stepped out of a van involved in a two-vehicle accident on Norbeck Road in Rockville and was hit by an approaching truck.
Rescue squads reported being flooded with emergency calls. A Montgomery County rescue squad arranged with the Maryland National Guard to fly a kidney patient by helicopter to Georgetown University Hospital for dialysis treatment. Prince George's County ambulance dispatchers, who say they normally handle 140 calls a day, handled 240 on Tuesday and nearly as many yesterday.
Only 25 to 40 percent of the federal work force had reported to work by 10 a.m., a spot check of agencies showed. Civil service officials estimated most agencies had less than 50 percent attendance at any time during the day.
Even so, the government appeared to have gotten through the day without major catastrophe.
"Here at headquarters, we just write rulings or work on longterm projects," said Wilson Fadely, a spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service. "Services to the taxpayer are handled out in the field."
At the Washington field office of the FBI, we can't get out to get anything done [and] can't send an agent on a routine investigation," said a spokesman. Of course, in an emergency such as a bank robbery, we'd have to send somebody.
Peer pressure among fellow employes brought some government workers through the snow to work.
"I'm in a car pool with my boss," said one GS-13 accountant for the Department of Transportation. He said the five-member car pool started out at 6:30 a.m. but got stalled in traffic.
"We got into a violent argument and sat there for an hour trying to take a vote on whether to turn back or keep trying, the accountant said. It was two against two, and the swing vote turned chicken and wouldn't commit himself."
The five finally decided to go back home, but shortly thereafter, the boss explained that he was worried that his own boss had made it to work and was looking for him, the accountant said.
"We got here, at noon," he said. "The country is saved."
Mail service was better yesterday than on Tuesday, when it was almost nonexistent. But still only 30 percent of the 7,400 employes assigned to the District post office and branches showed up, said D.C. Postmaster William H. Gordon.
Even so, enough carriers were on hand to deliver mail on 61 percent of the routes, Gordon said.
The problem was alleviated somewhat by a reduction in mail volume. Jack Cook, manager of postal services for Maryland, Northern Virginia and other transportation problems prevented some tractor-trailer drivers from reaching the huge bulk mail center in Largo.
Cook said the postal service is bracing for a deluge of mail as soon as the snow melts.
"The government and other agencies didn't mail for a couple of days, but that all will catch up with us," he said.
In the private sector, most retail firms were open but reported sluggish business.
Spokesmen for Safeway and Giant, the area's two biggest food suppliers, said all stores were open yesterday but acknowledged there were spot shortages of food, especially perishables.
Giant spokesman Barry Scher said the reason for bare shelves was children.
"Kids who normally are in school are consuming enormous amounts of milk and bread," he said. "There is no serious shortage of products, but there have been unprecedented sales."
Stores in such widespread locations as Alexandria, Columbia, Md., and Leesburg reported shortages of bread, milk and produce, but it's temporary, said Scher.
"It's either at Landover [Giant's distribution center] or on trucks enroute to the stores," he said.
Some banks remained closed yesterday, creating long lines of customers at branches that were open. Many curbside check cashing machines either malfunctioned or were out of money.
Because of the crowds and a shortage of employes, American Security Bank in Washington closed at 2 p.m., an hour earlier than normal.
Fuel oil suppliers reported stocks beginning to run low in the Washington area, blaming the shortage in part on the severe winter.
The Coast Guard cutter Madrona made several trips up the Potomac River from the Chesapeake Bay, breaking ice six to 12 inches thick and escorting tugs and oil barges to the Steuart Petroleum Co. storage center at Piney Point, Md. Steuart spokesman Robert Dudley said the company requested the escort after barges and tugs were unable to navigate the icy river.