- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2011

It’s not as if Washington-area officials and utilities were in the dark about the potential snowstorm, although many of their constituents and customers were in the dark Thursday, with thousands likely to remain without power through Friday evening.

Whatever could go wrong in the region’s first major snow dump of the year did go wrong, from traffic gridlock and extensive power outages to slick, snow-covered city streets that even seasoned mass-transit drivers couldn’t negotiate.

And nobody was spared — the mayor lost his power and the president got stuck in traffic. Jackknifed tractor-trailers, stuck buses and hundreds of abandoned vehicles blocked major roads and impeded snowplows well into Thursday.

“That’s the nightmarish situation that we’ve been dealing with as quickly as we can,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said.

More snow is predicted for Friday, though the National Weather Service said the Washington area should expect only light showers and about an inch of new white stuff.

At least six deaths across the Northeast were blamed on the storm, five of them in the District and Maryland.

The much-maligned D.C. Public Schools and the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) made early decisions on Wednesday’s evacuations based on the National Weather Service winter storm watch.

But the new administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray, which is reckoning with its first major snowstorm, lagged hours behind.

OPM used an 11:17 a.m. website post to inform federal workers in the D.C. area that they “should depart 2 hours earlier than their normal departure time.” Still, many supervisors took hours to communicate that to subordinates.

D.C. officials didn’t make their call until 2 p.m. — after the weather service had upgraded its winter storm watch to a winter storm warning and increased the snow estimates.

“[G]iven the current weather forecast and weather related closings throughout the region, DC Government Agency leaders are encouraged to exercise their authority to dismiss staff early with the least disruption to public service. The goal is to ensure that all District Government employees are able to travel safely and to clear area roads before the heaviest anticipated periods of snowfall,” read the internal memo, which was from the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency and addressed to “Agency Directors.”

Mr. Gray also could have followed a heads-up from D.C. Public Schools officials, who decided, even before schoolchildren began heading for their lunchrooms, to cancel all after-school programs and evening activities because the “National Weather Service is predicting significant snow accumulation.”

Closed schools and local-government offices allowed plows and salt trucks to more easily clear the streets Thursday, but homebound residents had to face what’s becoming a regular occurrence during severe rain, snow and wind storms: downed power lines.

About 10 a.m. Thursday, an estimated 180,000 Pepco customers, including Mr. Gray, were without power. A 5 p.m. check showed the number only slightly lower — still at almost 150,000 Pepco customers without power, mostly in Montgomery County.

On Thursday evening, Pepco released a statement saying it has additional “arriving crews from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and the Carolinas” and “should have power restored to the vast majority” of its customers by 11 p.m. Friday.

Dominion Virginia Power, which at one point had about 192,000 customers in Northern Virginia without power, said Thursday night that about 24,000 remain that way. The utility expects to restore power to at least 90 percent of its cut-off customers by Friday night.

“We have about 2,000 workers engaged in our restoration effort, including crews from eastern and central Virginia and North Carolina assisting in Northern Virginia,” said Rodney Blevins, vice president for electric operations.

Another 39,000 Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. customers were still without power Thursday night, and 21,000 Delmarva Power customers were in the dark Thursday afternoon — each figure a fraction of the number at the storm’s peak Wednesday night. BGE expects some outages to last into the weekend.

Mr. O’Malley told reporters at a Thursday briefing that the General Assembly will look at legislation on utility reliability standards during this year’s session.

Wednesday’s blowing storm wasn’t as heavy as last year’s “snowmageddon,” when back-to-back blizzards paralyzed the area and much of the rest of the Northeast. But it did dump 4 to 10 inches of heavy, wet snow across the Washington region — twice what had been forecast for inside the Capital Beltway in Tuesday’s forecasts.

Philadelphia and New York also took unexpectedly heavy pummelings of nearly 20 inches of snow — also twice the expected amount and about what New York averages for a whole winter season. Boston also got a foot of snow, though that was more or less what New England had been bracing for.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told reporters that the latest storm — his area has had snow eight times since mid-December — makes this January the snowiest since the city started keeping records.

However, the more northerly cities got hit in the evening and overnight, while Washington took the brunt at rush hour, turning motorists’ half- or one-hour commutes into nightmarish travel that lasted as long as, and in some instances longer than, their eight-hour workday.

Drivers sat for three hours on Interstate 295 to get from Northeast Washington to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the Beltway.

“Then,” said Gustavo, who works in Northeast, “we sat another three hours in Fairfax. The Beltway from the Wilson Bridge to Braddock Road was clear.”

Some had a rougher go of it Wednesday night, including one of Gustavo’s friends. “It took him 12 hours to get home,” insisted Gustavo, who didn’t want his last name used. “He left work at 4 p.m. near Laurel and arrived home in Fairfax at 4 a.m.”

Part of the reason for the traffic gridlock rests with bureaucrats, most of whom do not live in the city. The staggered decisions put evening commuters on the roads just as D.C. school buses, salt trucks and snowplows, and additional empty mass-transit buses for the evening rush were hitting major corridors. And at exactly the hour of the storm’s greatest wrath.

At a hastily called news conference Thursday in Washington, OPM Director John Berry apologized for the awful commute, but insisted that it wasn’t his fault and added that many federal workers didn’t leave as early as they could have because, as late as 3 p.m., the skies still looked clear. By the time they left, it was too late.

“I don’t control the weather. I don’t control the roads. I control the work schedule,” he said, adding that Wednesday’s storm was “the fastest-accumulating storm I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

A Metrobus created a traffic jam near Tenley Circle in Northwest when it got stuck across several lanes of always busy Wisconsin Avenue. Good Samaritans and a better driver finally straightened things out, but like other unfortunate motorists around the Beltway, and on it, they abandoned the bus on the street.

Sixteenth Street and Interstate 295 saw abandoned buses and private cars dotting their hilly stretches well into Thursday morning. Even relatively flat, incline-free major roads such as the Southeast-Southwest Freeway and Interstate 395 in Virginia had traffic moving at walking speeds or not at all Wednesday evening.

President Obama, arriving Wednesday evening at Andrews Air Force Base from a Wisconsin trip, couldn’t use the helicopter that would normally take him to the White House, forcing an hour-long motorcade journey.

The region’s major airports had to cancel hundreds of flights or close altogether Wednesday evening, but were able to got back up to normal operations by Thursday afternoon.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.