The Washington region awoke Tuesday to its first significant snowfall of the season, an event that closed the federal government and local schools and touched off another controversy about snow removal.
The region, for the most part, shrugged off the three to six inches of snow, which added a fourth day to a three-day holiday weekend. Plows made short work of the snow on major suburban highways emptied of school buses and commuters.
“On the spectrum of snowstorms, this was far from a Boston-style nor’easter,” said Jeff Halverson of The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang.
But the excitement isn’t over. Forecasts warn of possible snow squalls Wednesday evening — coinciding with the afternoon rush — when another powerful cold front is expected to hit the area, according to the Capital Weather Gang. “Record-challenging cold” — the most extreme of the winter — will follow the snow squall and last through Friday, according to The Post’s chief meteorologist, Jason Samenow.
Monday’s storm also swept across the Midwest, parts of the South and snow-weary New England, complicating life for an estimated 50 million people.
Meanwhile, in Upstate New York, Ithaca’s tourism Web site was telling people not to bother visiting because it was so cold and calling this season a “ridiculously stupid winter.” Instead, it recommended heading to Florida.
In the Washington region, the federal government was closed Tuesday, along with major school systems in the District and in Prince George’s, Montgomery, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, among others in Maryland and Northern Virginia.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s administration chose to tackle the snowstorm without the early deployment of one of the biggest weapons in the city’s arsenal: a snow-emergency declaration.
The District delayed declaring a snow emergency — which prohibits vehicles from parking on hundreds of miles of city thoroughfares — until the start of Tuesday’s morning rush. The delay meant that city crews could not begin curb-to-curb plowing of major streets until after 7 a.m. — when roads would be most needed to get workers downtown and well after the snow had stopped falling.
That decision came despite consensus more than a day earlier that the nation’s capital would receive four to eight inches of snow.
“The District and the region still hasn’t learned how to remove snow. . . . Northern cities still put us to shame,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said.
Mendelson said that the response to this storm was better than for a storm six weeks ago, when snowfall exceeded forecasts, but that he still found major roads such as Georgia Avenue unplowed as the storm settled in.
Asked about the delay at a news conference Tuesday, William O. Howland Jr., Bowser’s director of public works, said the decision was made because he wanted to protect hundreds of unsuspecting residents and visitors from having their vehicles towed on the Presidents’ Day holiday.
“I would have put the snow emergency on earlier, but we were coming off a holiday weekend,” Howland said. “What I was trying to do was tow as few cars as possible. Most snow emergency routes are rush-hour. People know to move their cars for rush hour.”
The cost of a snow-emergency tow is high: at least $370 per vehicle — $250 for the ticket, $100 for the towing fee and $20 a day for storage.
Metro, which ran on a Saturday schedule because of the weather, recorded 62,285 passenger boardings on its six rail lines from 5 a.m. to noon Tuesday, spokesman Dan Stessel said. That was nearly 80 percent fewer boardings than the 299,841 recorded during the same hours on the previous Tuesday. Metrobus service was suspended for much of the day.
Officials said rail, bus and MetroAccess service — the transit agency’s service for people with disabilities — would resume normal operations Wednesday.
Tuesday’s snow was made fluffy by temperatures in the teens. It was easily swept from sidewalks and cars and was good for sledding or cross-country skiing.
Among the activities organized in response to the snowfall was a planned snowball fight that drew a crowd to Meridian Hill Park in Northwest Washington.
The first snowballs took flight in the park at 11 a.m., just as planned. But those initial lobs appeared to lack much vigor.
And then a general took command.
“One, two, three,” he yelled. “Charge!”
There, in the middle of the Meridian Hill Park, more than 100 snowballers on the north side sprinted toward those to the south, flinging tightly packed orbs and shrouding the combatants in fluffy white powder. How the teams had formed was unclear, even to those involved, but the disorder didn’t dilute the participants’ loyalty.
Fighting alongside somebody dressed as Captain America was a guy who looked like a chicken, a man in a full-body giraffe suit and a woman wearing a Cleveland Browns helmet and holding a plastic trash-can shield.
The melee at Meridian Hill was originally set for Dupont Circle, which served as an arena for a massive snowball fight in February 2010, when Snowmageddon shut down the city and more than 1,000 people joined in the hullabaloo. But plans to meet there were thwarted when the National Park Service plowed the sidewalks.
Behind each of the gatherings was an enthusiastically orchestrated social-media campaign by what is known as the Washington DC Snowball Fight Association.
“We’re going to hire a lobbyist,” joked Ami Greener, one of the association’s co-founders. “Ask for some funding.”
Things were less combative in Fort Reno Park. Clad from head to toe in pink winter wear, 2-year-old Lucinda Josephs toddled around in sneakers covered in Washington Post plastic newspaper bags. It was her first time in the snow — she hadn’t started walking last winter — and she took to it with gusto, clambering after big sister Jocelyn, 5, under the watchful eye of their father, Matt Josephs.
Josephs, who works in government affairs for a nonprofit group, had the day off and decided to take the girls to the park. As Lucinda, better known as Lulu, climbed tentatively over piles of snow, she fell backward, landed squarely on her behind and let out an infectious squeal of giggles. Her father laughed with her.
At the same time, the region’s highway crews were preparing the roads for the Wednesday morning commute. With the bitterly cold temperatures — an overnight low of 15 degrees was forecast for the District — officials warned that roads could be icy Wednesday morning and warned drivers to use caution.
Two fatal crashes were reported in the region — one in Loudoun County on Monday night and the other in Howard County.
Between 4 p.m. Monday and noon Tuesday, Virginia State Police and dispatchers statewide fielded 3,363 calls for service. Troopers responded to 1,035 traffic crashes and 1,023 disabled vehicles statewide. Two state troopers were struck and injured when drivers lost control on slick roadways.
In Maryland, officials reminded motorists to keep speeds down and allow extra braking distance.
“Our crews did a fantastic job of clearing the State roads quickly on Tuesday and we appreciate that many people heeded the warnings to delay travel, which made a difference in our operations,” Maryland State Highway Administrator Melinda B. Peters said in a statement. “With temperatures expected to stay well below freezing for the next several days, we ask motorists to plan ahead for the next round of snow that looks like it could impact travel during the day on Wednesday into Wednesday night, potentially making the evening commute problematic.”
Moriah Balingit, Dan Morse, Jenna Johnson, Justin Jouvenal, Bill Turque, Michael Laris, Paulina Firozi, Dana Hedgpeth, Katherine Shaver, Jason Samenow, T. Rees Shapiro, Paul Duggan and Luz Lazo contributed to this report.