A blizzard that will be remembered for generations as one of the biggest storms in the region’s history closed its 36-hour reign in a wind-whipped fury that caused whiteouts deep into Saturday night.
It brought Washington and its suburbs to a standstill, with all but a few major highways made impassable by more than two feet of snow. The winds that spared the region for the storm’s first 24 hours arrived at gale strength Saturday afternoon, pushing snow back onto the few cleared roads and sidewalks and threatening to take down power lines that serve 6 million people.
Authorities warned that it would take days before all the roads became passable or power was restored if the number of outages mounted during the night. With Sunday forecast to be sunny, if cold, authorities feared that people housebound since Friday would be eager to get out.
“Please do not go out and get on the road tomorrow or Monday,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said Saturday afternoon. “We are working primary roads right now, and then beginning next week, we will get into the secondary roads.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said: “There are too many people on the streets, both driving and walking. We need you to stay home.”
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) imposed a travel ban in New York City. In Baltimore, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, only emergency vehicles were allowed on city streets. Why not the District?
“We want our community to heed our recommendations, our concerns, and get off the road,” Bowser said. “But more than that, we cannot afford to divert our emergency services to police a travel ban.”
A Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman lambasted SUV owners out on joyrides. “There’s a lot of people in four-wheel drives that are just kind of out cruising around, and they’re getting in the way of snow operations,” spokesman Charlie Gischlar said.
At least five deaths — four in Virginia and one in Maryland — were linked to the storm. They included a traffic fatality, heart attacks while shoveling snow and two hypothermia deaths.
Nationwide, at least 18 deaths were attributed to the storm, most because of traffic crashes.
The enormousness of the storm will be calculated after it’s all over, when the snowfall totals are collected from the three airports that measure them and other less prestigious sources.
But it certainly will rival the totals from the record for the biggest two-day snowstorm in Washington. That was set Jan. 27-28, 1922, when 26 inches fell. That snowfall collapsed the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre in Adams Morgan, killing more than 100 people. And this weekend’s snow eclipsed the biggest winter storm of this young century, “Snowmageddon” of Feb. 5-6, 2010, when 17.8 inches fell.
By Saturday evening, “Snowzilla” snow totals ranged from 22 to 35 inches west, north and northwest of the Capital Beltway; 17 to 24 inches inside the Beltway; and 10 to 20 inches southeast of the Beltway.
Around 5 p.m., Snowzilla officially met the criteria for a blizzard, with three straight hours of wind gusts at more than 35 mph, visibility of a quarter-mile or less, and snow and blowing snow.
The magnitude of the storm, with its delivery of three inches of snow per hour, paralyzed the East Coast from Richmond to New York. Roads and public transit shut down in New York and Washington, and low-lying coastal regions from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Long Island, N.Y., prepared for flooding Sunday and Monday.
The low-pressure system fueling the snowstorm had generated hurricane-force gusts at sea, and the forecast was for waves as tall as a three-story building.
Airlines canceled almost 10,000 flights in and out of the stricken region and said they did not expect to resume regular schedules until Monday. Even then, it will be a few days before air travel returns to normal.
Runways at Reagan National and Dulles International airports were expected to remain closed Sunday while crews cleared snow.
The U.S. Postal Service gave up on attempts to deliver the mail Saturday in the Washington region and said carriers would try again Monday. The agency asked homeowners to dig out their mailboxes and clear sidewalks.
The Metro system’s buses and rail lines were to remain shut down through the weekend. Metro hoped to resume operations Monday.
As night fell Saturday, about 1,200 customers of the region’s three utilities were without power, but with winds driving the snow sideways there was worry that falling trees would increase that number.
“Every customer should be prepared for the possibility of losing power,” said Michael Maxwell, vice president of Pepco, which provides power in the District and most of the Maryland suburbs. “As we have sustained winds and the heavy, wet snow, that’s where I would have my concerns.”
State police in Virginia said they responded to 1,100 accidents statewide, the majority of them in Northern Virginia.
Road crews around the region were focused on clearing major arteries, so residents were cautioned not to expect their neighborhood streets to be cleared soon.
In Montgomery County, a barn collapsed, trapping a dozen horses, according to Pete Piringer, spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue. He said 35 horses were in the Poolesville barn when the roof collapsed about 3 p.m. Firefighters were able to clear away the snow and debris to free the trapped animals. They were homeless but safe.
There are people who hunker down when blizzards hit and others who embrace the chance for suburban adventure. Melissa Polito and her husband were among bold explorers on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Md., on Saturday afternoon, trudging along in the snow-packed road because there was no sign of a sidewalk anymore.
“Each step is up to my knees,” said Melissa, bundled in ski pants and jacket, multiple warm layers and double gloves. “Generally, I would not advise walking in the middle of Georgia Avenue, but today we can.”
Wearing hats and boots and carrying travel mugs of coffee, Carrie Pope and Eran Friedman trudged through knee-high snow in Meridian Hill Park in Northwest Washington, where only a dozen people could be spotted in the snow and wind.
“I love the snow. It’s peaceful, and everyone’s friendlier,” said Pope, 25.
“It brings peace and tranquility to a loud and busy city,” said Friedman, 26. “It’s a reset, a mental reset. It’s like a clean slate.”
In the heart of Arlington’s famous “walkable” neighborhoods, pedestrians took advantage of the plowed Clarendon Boulevard to stretch their legs Saturday morning.
“We’re only going a half-block,” said Mike Carr, pushing infant Ciaran in a stroller at the corner of Adams and Clarendon, while Nellie Carr oversaw their 3-year-old daughter Nori. “We live right there and we’re going to Courthouse Plaza for breakfast with the in-laws.”
Only a couple of businesses were open Saturday at National Harbor, in Prince George’s County, but for those that were it was a sense of community that motivated them.
“We are here to serve the people of the harbor,” said Chantal Farah, a CVS pharmacist. “They count on us. They trust us, and we cannot betray their trust.”
At trendy Maketto on H Street in the District, someone still has to make the doughnuts. And the croissants, the banana cream pie, the coffee caramel profiteroles.
Diana and Ben Mullen and their 18-month-old son, Parker, were among the early arrivals to enjoy them. “We wanted a little bit of an adventure,” said Ben, 32, as he held his son on his lap.
As for the blizzard, they were impressed, but not overly so.
“Where I’m from, this is normal,” said Diana, 30, who is originally from Upstate New York. “We have these in October.”
To Charles Boettger and his wife, Kelly, the snowfall felt like something of a holiday. They’ve lived in Silver Spring, Md., for three years and miss the big snowfalls they grew up with — he in western Iowa, she in Colorado.
They woke up Saturday with a sense of excitement.
By late morning, they were happily shoveling their driveway with Cassie, their 8-year-old dog. “We’ve moved a lot of snow in our time,” Charles said. “You want to move as much if it as you can while it’s light and fluffy and before it gets packed.”
About 90 minutes in, they stepped back from their good work and considered how best to enjoy it.
Kelly located two white plastic patio chairs. The couple set them up in the cleared part of the driveway as snow continued to fall. They broke out a couple of beers.
Public health researcher Jennafer Kwait is not a fan of wintertime, but Saturday afternoon she was at a Chevy Chase, Md., sledding hill with her 9-year-old son, Eli Kwait-Spitzer. “I feel like the window when he is going to like doing this is closing,” she said. “I don’t like the cold, but I made an effort to get out.”
Eli took a few runs by himself and with his dad, Allan Spitzer. Now mom was up. “Mom, come on,” Eli yelled. “Do you want to be in the front or the back?”
Frantona O’Neal, 50, heard the storm was coming last week and knew he had better find shelter. Word on the street was that Arlington’s 24-hour homeless shelter and emergency services center, which has beds, a cafeteria, medical help and social services, was a good place.
“There’s four walls and three meals a day,” O’Neal said. “That’s the important thing.”
Eating a cheese sandwich and chips for lunch, O’Neal was one of more than 80 people who sought shelter this weekend. The shelter, built to house 50, can hold 75 when the weather is extreme and people bed down on mats in the cafeteria. Four of the five medical beds also were filled.
Shaka Barnes, 27, said he used to stay in abandoned buildings “and other places where people on the street go.” He arrived at the shelter about four months ago and has been getting medication for his paranoid schizophrenia.
“They give us a lot of food and our beds. The bathrooms are big and clean,” he said. “One of the things that affects me with my mental illness is how crowded a place is. This is very comfortable and it has a lot of space.”