The biggest November snowfall in nearly three decades caught the Washington region off-guard Thursday, closing schools and bringing a slew of crashes that delayed commuters and left one person dead.
A mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain pummeled the area at the height of the morning rush, dropping 1.4 inches of snow in Washington and higher amounts north and west of the city. The early-season bout with winter surprised road crews, as well as school districts that had initially called for only a delayed start to the day.
“It’s worse than what was predicted,” said Ellen Kamilakis, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Barely a dusting of snow had fallen in the city’s western suburbs in the early morning hours, but by 7 a.m., heavy snow coincided with busy roadways across much of the region.
Slick roads were blamed for numerous traffic accidents, according to the Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination. The group reported “unusual congestion” that grew as conditions deteriorated, noting most crashes were minor, although others had a “high impact” on traffic.
It was the first measurable November snowfall at Reagan National Airport since 1996 and the biggest in the month since 1989. Jason Samenow, editor of The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, said the nation’s capital averages about a half-inch of snow in November, but Thursday’s winter storm brought a “boom scenario.”
“Snow came in very hard and very heavy at the worst time,” he said.
Virginia State Police said weather was a factor in a crash that killed a 27-year-old man in Stafford County. Authorities said David M. Lenox of Fredericksburg lost control of his westbound Ford Mustang amid poor road conditions on Route 218, striking an eastbound Chevrolet Tahoe.
Lenox died at the scene and a passenger was hospitalized with minor injuries, authorities said. The driver of the Tahoe wasn’t injured.
In Maryland, a Montgomery County firetruck being driven to a site for maintenance work overturned along Interstate 70 near Myersville in Frederick County. Lanes were closed for several hours along the icy highway.
Road conditions also forced the closure of southbound Interstate 270 near Frederick after several vehicles collided or slid off the road, authorities said.
The toll for solo drivers on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway reached about $45 as congestion slowed District-bound traffic during the morning rush.
On Metro, some riders reported sidewalks and platforms that appeared untreated, sharing images on social media of snow covering walkways. Metro officials said platforms and sidewalks had been treated.
For some residents, the wintry weather meant altering Thursday morning’s commute.
“Usually I drive in, but when I saw snow I decided to take the Metro, and it wasn’t too bad,” said Lisa Ellis, 49, of Upper Marlboro as she walked along L Street NW.
LaRonda Ferguson, a federal government worker, said she would have telecommuted from her home in Waldorf, rather than her usual ride on a commuter bus, but she left her work laptop at her downtown office. Federal agencies were open in Washington, with employees given the option to take unscheduled leave or to work from home.
Much to Ferguson’s surprise, her hour-and-a-half commute wasn’t longer than normal, except for picking up passengers on another bus that broke down along Route 5.
“I was surprised,” she said. “I expected it to be worse but it really wasn’t.”
She said she was more surprised that schools near her home weren’t delayed, as she watched kids stand at a bus stop with big snowflakes coming down.
Most school districts west and north of the District canceled classes Thursday, although a normal schedule was in place for public school students in Arlington and Alexandria.
Frank Bellavia, a spokesman for the Arlington Public Schools, said officials monitored the situation Wednesday night and early Thursday, then made the decision to open on time based on information available at 5 a.m.
“Weather conditions were more challenging than expected,” he wrote in an email. “Our decisions are not made lightly and we do regret the challenges that some families faced.”
The school district issued an apology on Twitter, saying it was sorry for the “difficulties APS families, students and staff” experienced in getting to school. Bellavia said a few buses couldn’t complete their routes, although most students arrived to school on time.
Alexandria City Public Schools officials said eight of its buses were delayed because of street closures related to the weather.
Helen Lloyd, a spokeswoman for the school district, said in an email that the “majority of our students were in school before the snow came in.”
Several public school districts, including those in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, initially planned a two-hour delayed opening, then canceled classes after conditions began to deteriorate.
VDOT officials said crews on Wednesday pre-treated some primary streets, bridges and ramps with brine and had been on standby early Thursday to treat roads.
Some vehicles that use brine don’t leave the familiar white residue often associated with treated roads, officials noted after criticism that some roads didn’t appear to be treated. It’s also possible that rain washed away some of the brine treatment, VDOT said.
VDOT said 250 trucks were treating the roads early Thursday. Crews began working at midnight to treat roads in the western part of Northern Virginia, including Loudoun County, and at 4 a.m. in eastern parts of Fairfax County. Crews ramped up around 8 a.m. to treat major roads in parts of Prince William County.
“We and the National Weather Service, I think, weren’t expecting it to be as heavy a snow as it was,” Kamilakis said. She said the agency adjusted its snow plans and “at this point, we’re augmenting” crews.
“We’ll deal with whatever comes along,” she said.
In Maryland, officials said more than 800 people, plus 1,400 pieces of equipment, were treating roads. In the District, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ordered crews to do a “partial deployment” starting at midnight Thursday with 123 plows.
The wintry mix gradually changed to rain by midday in Washington. West of the D.C. region, up to six inches of snow was possible in some parts of Virginia and Maryland.
The storm, which brought snowflakes to places like Houston and parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, tracked across the South and is developing into a classic nor’easter. It is unloading substantial snow, ice, and rain from the Mid-Atlantic through New England.
More than 12,000 flights were delayed or canceled across the country Thursday, according to tracking by aviation data company FlightAware, including flights at the Washington region’s three airports.
In Virginia, plans were made for a possible refreeze early Friday, with crews ready to work 12-hour shifts to treat roads as needed, Kamilakis said.
After lows in the mid-30s, temperatures were expected to reach about 50 degrees Friday afternoon in Washington with mostly sunny skies. The extended forecast showed no signs of winter’s return, with highs near 50 through the middle of next week.