- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2000

Meteorologists still smarting from Tuesday's surprise snowstorm are hedging their bets for the weekend, predicting precipitation of some kind on Sunday.

Forecasters say the region could be hit again with freezing rain or perhaps snow. But, this time, they all agree: Poor weather is a definite possibility.

"I think there is a chance it will arrive by Sunday. In the big cities, it could be freezing rain, it could be rain and snow or it could be all snow," said prognosticator William O'Toole, who predicts those conditions in J. Gruber's Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack, the nation's second-oldest almanac.

Weather forecasters seem to be keeping their options open as the National Weather Service wipes egg or, rather, snow off its face. Its meteorologists in Sterling, Va., were a bit late in forecasting the storm that pounded the region Tuesday.

By the time the storm passed and the sun returned Wednesday, 9.3 inches of snow had fallen at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and 14.9 inches at Baltimore-Washington International Airport broke a 95-year-old record of 5.9 inches, according to record keepers.

The worst storm since the blizzard of 1996 blindsided Washington area residents who went to bed before late news reports and woke up to a winter wonderland. It wasn't until 9 p.m. Monday that the weather service issued storm warnings.

Early National Weather Service predictions showed the day would be partly sunny and mild.

"I was not pleased to see my forecast go awry, but it's part of the game," said Christopher Strong, a National Weather Service meteorologist. "You just try to stay on top of the forecast and get the warning out as fast as you can."

Mr. Strong felt fairly confident Thursday that the region will get some sort of "wintry mix" of freezing rain, sleet and snow sometime after midnight tomorrow.

"Who gets what percent all depends on how the storm tracks. It's still back in western Texas," Mr. Strong said.

Mr. O'Toole spends more time teaching mathematics and computer science at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md., than forecasting the weather, but he correctly predicted Tuesday's blast.

Mr. O'Toole issued his storm warning for Jan. 24 in September when the the 203rd edition of his publication was ready. He also predicted last week's snowfall and the dates of cold temperatures across the area since mid-January.

Mr. O'Toole analyzes lunar phases, sunspots and Pacific Ocean currents to make long-range predictions. Mr. O'Toole, who was interested in astronomy as a teen-ager and had several relatives in farming, began predicting weather in 1969.

Sue Palka, a weather forecaster with WTTG-TV (Channel 5), correctly predicted the storm's strength early Monday.

"I got closer than anyone else. I don't think I nailed it, but I gave the perception it would be a major storm more than anyone else," she said.

While the upcoming storm is bigger and moving faster than earlier believed, Mrs. Palka's not ready to call the shots.

"Remember that last week at this time, we also thought there would be a big winter storm during the weekend, but it didn't happen," she said.

The National Weather Service has a new supercomputer to help in its job. The state-of-the-art equipment allows analysts to forecast with greater accuracy than ever events that will occur in six to 10 days. Formerly, they were limited to two- to five-day predictions.

But Tuesday's storm played a dirty trick on meteorologists when it took a turn for the worse once it hit the East Coast.

"It was a very rapidly developing storm. We were tracking a smaller storm. Once it hit the coast, it really took off," Mr. Strong said.

While transportation officials in the immediate area still were calculating costs Thursday, Baltimore's director of public works said the snowstorm forced the city to blow its $1.6 million snow-removal budget.

George Winfield said the city spent well over $1 million on that snowstorm alone. Mayor Martin O'Malley says he's not yet certain how the city will make up the difference.

Thursday, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening lifted the state of emergency declared Tuesday. The District's snow emergency also was lifted Thursday morning, but Virginia's state of emergency remains in effect.

Meanwhile, Virginia, Maryland and D.C. transportation and public works officials are keeping an eye on the forecast.

"We've been through this before when in the blizzard of '96 we had three back-to-back storms in a week. That was relentless," said Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Joan Morris.

Friday is expected to be sunny and very cold, with temperatures hitting 30 degrees. Saturday should be more of the same, with highs around 32. By Sunday and Monday, temperatures will reach the mid-30s.

"Hopefully, we'll get a little bit of a break so the crews can rest up and we can give the equipment a once over. But we'll be ready," VDOT's Mrs. Morris said.

Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck said many motorists who hit the roads to get to work Thursday might know they have only a couple of good working days before the next bout.

"Maybe they think in the back of their head, 'There's another big storm coming in Sunday. I better get to work,' " Mr. Buck said of the many motorists on the roads Thursday.

Mr. Buck said transportation officials are worried about Sunday's expected bad weather, especially because it could involve ice, which he says is much harder to battle than heavy snow.

"I just hope it doesn't all hit while everyone's out watching the Super Bowl," Mr. Buck said.

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