The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An inch of snow, icy roads unleash 9 hours of traffic chaos across D.C. region

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser delivered an apology to the residents of the District after the city failed to prepare for an inch of snowfall Wednesday, which caused significant delays during rush hour. (Video: WUSA9)
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“Horrible.” “Pathetic.” “Painful.” “Unbelievable.” “One inch of snow did this.”

From every corner of the region and into the wee hours of the morning, from every highway and byway, motorists vented their anger and frustration that they were still out there — at 1 a.m., then 2 a.m. and still at 3 a.m. — because of ice and untreated roads, from a modest early-evening snowfall that came and went in a few hours.

As the beginning of the morning rush hour approached, there were still reports of hazardous conditions and road blockages in many areas.

The detritus of the long commuting ordeal — scores of cars abandoned on and around the shoulders of highways — could complicate the drive to work for those unfortunate enough to have to make it.

It was Washington’s familiar post-apocalypse look, minus the apocalypse, a bewildering sight to those accustomed to more frigid climes.

Capital Weather Gang: We are not blameless in this

And the scene proved once again (though no proof was needed) that Washington, when taken by surprise, is woefully unprepared, not just for a blizzard but for any “snow event.” It also showed how little it takes for the region to descend into a long night of traffic chaos: more than 1,000 reported fender-benders (unofficial numbers via Waze), six- and seven-hour trips home, jammed arteries and impassably frozen exit ramps.

Frustrated D.C. drivers took to social media to document their commuting woes on Jan. 20. Light snow fell and caused traffic jams and minor crashes. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

That was compounded by road-treatment crews desperately but slowly trying to make things right and by emergency vehicles responding to calls about countless accidents. Most were said to be “minor” as cars slid into one another, but there were also reports, with little detail, of more serious crashes.

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Got this from the old lady, exits are closed on 66 due to abandoned cars

Overnight, every major highway appeared to be backed up in some spot, many in numerous places. Those roads bearing the letter “I” in their names— interstates 66, 295, 495, 395,  95, 695, 270 — were the worst of all. With many exit ramps blocked, there was no escape.

Silean Eaves, an assistant principal at School Without Walls in the District, told The Washington Post in a telephone interview from the road that she spent more than 6 1/2 hours on I-66 West before she reached the Dulles Toll Road on her way home to Herndon. “It’s a mess,” she said at 3 a.m., still en route. “Just pure ice. You can’t even go up any of the ramps. You pretty much have to stay on 66 and ride it out.” Plus she would have to make the reverse journey in just a few hours. “We have to go to school tomorrow at 7:30,” she said, wondering how conditions could possibly be better in the morning as 66 East was “a parking lot.” She added: “There’s a spelling bee. By the grace of God, we’ll get some rest and get out there.”

“Horrible,” said Maryland State Police Sgt. Brandon Gosnell when he answered the phone at 2:42 a.m. “It’s basically a parking lot — the entire county,” he said of Prince George’s County. “We’re just playing catch-up.” The same was true across the region, according to traffic reports, police and motorists who took to Twitter and WTOP’s all-night hotline to vent.

“One inch of snow did this tonight,” tweeted Rebecca DiLuzio. “I can’t even think of what this weekend’s storm will do.”

“I left Fairfax at 6:20. It is 1:40 in the morning,” said a hotline caller. Another: “I am on Indian Head Highway. It has not been treated. This is unbelievable. This is pathetic. This is not managed government.” Another: “I am sitting on the Beltway in Oxon Hill at a complete stop for an hour and a half. This is really painful.”

The night summoned the memory of a snowstorm in 2011 that trapped commuters for as many as 13 hours. Robert Fletcher, 57, left his Farragut Square law office before 7 p.m. and headed toward a usually 30-minute, 12-mile commute to his Falls Church home. More than four hours later, he was calling his wife from behind the wheel of his Infiniti, hopelessly mired in a miles-long backup on Interstate 66 just west of Rosslyn, inching less than half a mile in four hours.

“This is an unbelievable situation,” he said by phone. “It’s just a dangerous situation, and the authorities are doing absolutely nothing. I just don’t understand.”

Capital Weather Gang’s latest storm forecast: Timing, snow predictions and more

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) appeared to miss the potential hazards of a slight amount of snow. At a midday news conference Wednesday, she focused on the impending weekend storm, not mentioning at all the possibility of snow affecting the city during the evening commute.

Kellie Boulware, a Maryland State Highway Administration spokeswoman, said the roads were not pre-treated because the forecast was calling for no more than a squall. She said that as the snowfall continued, the highway agency pulled in additional crews, which were to work through the night to treat slick roads in preparation for the morning rush.

In Virginia, state transportation officials did not pre-treat roads because forecasts called for temperatures so low that the treatment might freeze on roads, making them more hazardous.

“It only takes a little bit of ice to create a very serious situation,” said Jennifer McCord, a spokeswoman. Even President Obama’s motorcade was affected, making its way from Joint Base Andrews at 7:26 p.m. through suburban Maryland and the District. The vehicles stopped at most stoplights and eased their way through the slow-moving traffic, often employing sirens and flashing lines.

After nearly an hour, the vehicles, slipping and skidding, started making more aggressive use of their sirens and stoplight privileges. The ride ended at the White House at approximately 8:40 p.m.

Deadly winter storm hit the nation’s capital

ARLINGTON VA, JANUARY 24: A man shovels a sidewalk along Wilson Bvld in Arlington VA, January 24, 2016. (John McDonnell / The Washington Post)

Victoria St. Martin and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.


How to protect yourself and your home

What to do if you see someone who needs help in freezing weather

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