Washington took the day off yesterday as a major winter storm dumped up to nine inches of powdery snow on the city and its suburbs, shutting down government offices, businesses and schools, but creating few of the traffic nightmares that have plagued the region during past snow emergencies.
Streets and highways were all but deserted yesterday morning, allowing plows to keep pace with the snow and clear most major thoroughfares by the time it finally tapered off yesterday afternoon. Police reported few traffic accidents, airports remained open and Metro ran smoothly.
Mayor Marion Barry stayed at the city's snow emergency center until 3 a.m., and declared victory yesterday afternoon in an upbeat news conference. District officials lifted the snow emergency at 6 p.m.
Weather Service forecasters were predicting overnight temperatures in the teens. Arctic conditions are expected to ease over the weekend, with today's forecast calling for partly sunny skies and a high temperature in the 30s, according to Calvin Meadows of the National Weather Service.
The outlook for Sunday is for partly cloudy skies with a high around 30.
Many people seemed grateful for yesterday's thick blanket of snow, which created an unexpected holiday for 250,000 federal workers and sent schoolchildren scurrying for their sleds.
In downtown Washington, the city seemed defined by silence and varying shades of gray, with snow softening the lines of the government monoliths and cross-country skiers making solitary tracks across the Mall.
"I love it every time it snows," said Pug Gutridge, a helicopter pilot at Coast Guard headquarters who spent part of the afternoon practicing his cross-country skiing technique at the base of the Washington Monument.
Local government offices also were closed, and many businesses opened late or not at all. In Prince William County, the Potomac Mills Mall closed for the fourth time in its two-year history, its huge parking lot empty except for plows creating mountains of snow. Many of the cafes and shops in Old Town Alexandria stayed shuttered.
Elsewhere, some people came to work only to preside over warrens of empty offices. "We're totally closed," said Molly Ford, a receptionist at Hogan & Hartson, a large downtown law firm. What was she doing there? "Good question," she said. "Two receptionists came in to answer the phones and tell people we're closed."
For the area's homeless, the snow meant more hardships after a week of frigid weather. Shelters were filled to capacity and beyond. At the Community for Creative Non-Violence, which normally has space for 600 people, shelter operators were forced to house an overflow of 100 people in a wing that is supposed to serve as an alcohol and drug treatment center, according to a spokesman.
Snow began falling in Washington at 7 p.m. Thursday and continued until 2 p.m. yesterday, part of a massive storm system that began in the Pacific Ocean, then swept across the Rockies and into the southeastern United States before veering into the Mid-Atlantic states and aiming toward New England yesterday afternoon.
Snow depths in the Washington area ranged from five inches at Dulles International Airport to nine inches at National Airport, according to the National Weather Service. Seven inches of snow fell on Baltimore and Richmond recorded six inches.
Highway officials said that cold temperatures at night could prevent road salt from melting snow and ice, and warned motorists to drive with extra caution. In general, however, highway officials said that snow removal efforts had been helped by several days of warning and the virtual absence of traffic.
"People are being very good about staying off the roads," said Marianne Pastor, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, which began spreading salt and sand as the first flakes fell in Fairfax County at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. "There seems to be a spirit that we're all in this together. The media has been very good about pointing out to the public that we can't plow in a traffic jam."
In Prince George's and Montgomery counties, where the state highway administration dispatched 232 pieces of snow removal equipment beginning at 7 p.m., highway crews encountered no major tie-ups or problems, according to operations engineer Fran McGrath.
"Things seem to be going rather well," McGrath said. "All the weather services were calling for it so we were prepared as best we could." Moreover, he said, "We didn't run into too many abandoned cars."
The situation was dramatically different from experiences last January and again in November. In January, back-to-back snowstorms dumped 21 inches of snow on the city and its suburbs in a 10-day period. On the Veterans Day holiday Nov. 11, a freak preseason storm dumped up to 16 inches of snow on some locations in the Washington area and left hundreds of motorists stranded on a stretch of I-295 and on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
During the first January storm last year, chaos prevailed when the federal government dismissed thousands of workers at mid-morning, just as highway crews were beginning to plow.
Things got even worse when hundreds of motorists abandoned their cars in the drifts. For days afterward, commuters suffered epic delays on unplowed roads and a Metro system that literally froze in its tracks.
In the aftermath of that snow emergency, local officials vowed to avoid a repeat performance and drafted a regional snow plan, which was implemented yesterday.
A key element was the decision to keep federal workers at home. Constance Horner, director of the federal Office of Personnel Management, made the decision at her Cleveland Park home at about 5 a.m., according to her assistant, James Lafferty, who said he rose at 3:30 a.m. to check on road conditions throughout the area.
"Basically we did the typical survey of police and highway officials in Maryland, the District and Virginia and found that highway crews were in a neck-and-neck race with the storm," Lafferty said. "We looked at all the forecasts and decided it was probably unsafe to put a large number of people on the road."
Once the decision was made, Lafferty said, OPM officials participated in a 5:30 a.m. conference call to share the information with others from around the region, as stipulated in the snow plan. Information about school and local government closings also was disseminated during the conference call.
School officials, for the most part, waited until early yesterday to decide whether to keep students at home. In Fairfax, for example, Superintendent Robert R. Spillane decided at 4:45 a.m. to close county schools. He said he considered making the decision the night before, but wanted to wait in case forecasts proved inaccurate.
County governments shut down or curtailed their hours. In Montgomery County, County Executive Sidney Kramer said he decided at 4 a.m. to open county offices at noon. "The simplest, easiest and most popular decision would have been to close down and let everyone enjoy the day," he said.
He added, however, that the county would have had to pay overtime wages to emergency workers and "it would cost a whale of a lot of money." Prince William County was officially open but a liberal leave policy was in effect. Fairfax was closed.
To anyone who was out and about yesterday morning, the absence of a rush hour was striking. The Wilson Bridge, a notorious choke point whenever it snows, was nearly empty of traffic at 8 a.m. Shirley Highway (I-395) was similarly deserted.
On the Metro system, there were "more employees out there than passengers," said spokeswoman Beverly Silverberg. Metro ran six-car trains to handle possible crowds, but carried only 45,000 passengers during the morning rush hour, two-thirds below normal.
The weather delayed flights up and down the East Coast, but all three Washington area airports remained open with none of the pandemonium that has characterized past snowstorms. Well-publicized warnings about the storm may have prompted people to call the airlines in advance and change their plans, said Mary Hope, a spokeswoman for Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
The lack of traffic made a big difference in the District. At rush hour yesterday morning, major corridors such as New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island avenues were plowed and passable. By 5 p.m. yesterday, secondary roads were reported to be 90 percent clear.
City officials made good on their promise to enforce snow emergency regulations aggressively, ticketing 1,600 cars and towing 499, just under the record of 500 set during the Nov. 11 snow emergency.
Barry, who was vacationing in Southern California during the first days of last winter's snow emergency and was heavily criticized for his absence, kept a close watch over yesterday's snow removal efforts. Early yesterday afternoon, Barry returned to the snow command center for a lighthearted news conference with the same reporters who had covered the city's efforts last January.
"The mayor is in high spirits with reporters saying the streets look real good," said John C. White, the mayor's press secretary. At one point, Barry went on television for an interview with TV reporter Pat Collins, who had been one of his harshest critics a year ago. Collins and Barry exchanged Washington Redskins caps and Barry put in a plug for the home-town team, which has an NFL playoff game in Chicago on Sunday.
Staff writers Jo-Ann Armao, Barbara Carton, Patricia Davis, Paul Duggan, Nell Henderson, Claudia Levy, Tom Sherwood, Marcia Slacum Green, Pierre Thomas, Tom Vesey, Linda Wheeler and Jeffrey Yorke contributed to this report.