- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 19, 2009

The District, Maryland and Virginia ramped up for a massive snowstorm that could dump up to 16 inches on the area during one of the busiest shopping weekends of the holiday season.

While it might be too early for a white Christmas, Bryan Jackson, a meteorologist at the Baltimore/Washington forecast office of the U.S. National Weather Service, said the agency was expecting “whiteout” conditions on Saturday.

“The roads will be treacherous,” Mr. Jackson said Friday. “It is supposed to be the No. 1 shopping day tomorrow, but we encourage people not to go out.”

Mr. Jackson said 1 to 3 inches of accumulation were expected by Saturday morning, but that as the day progresses, conditions will worsen and another 12 inches of snow could accumulate.

“If you get up and there are couple of inches out there, it is going to continue to get worse. We need roads clear so plows can get out to do their jobs,” Mr. Jackson said.

A winter storm warning was in effect until Sunday morning, and forecasters said another snowstorm was a slim possibility for Monday.

By Friday, the storm had caused flooding in the Southeast and flash-flood warnings in areas including Alabama and Florida.

In Washington, where lawmakers continue to debate health care reform ahead of an anticipated Christmas Eve vote, the snowstorm became a political issue.

Conservative columnist Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard wrote on his blog that it would be unsafe to ask Hill staffers to trek to the Capitol to continue to debate the health care reform bill. He suggested that Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, the only known Democratic holdout on the bill, whose vote is needed to end debate over the legislation, announce his intentions sooner rather than later.

“So from the point of view of public safety and personal well-being, Ben Nelson can do everyone a favor, announce today he won’t vote for cloture, and let everyone stay home this weekend,” Mr. Kristol wrote.

Senators already were scheduled to vote Saturday morning on a defense spending bill. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, warned his colleagues on the floor Friday to “plan accordingly” in light of the storm.

Some lawmakers from warmer climates couldn’t resist poking fun at how ill-equipped the city often is for dealing with winter weather. One senator compared the challenge posed by the elements to the challenge of getting something accomplished in the Senate.

“[Saturday], there’s going to be a snowstorm, and we’ll be coming in in RVs, and everything will be paralyzed as our nation’s capital always is when there’s a snowstorm,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. Mr. McCain compared the impending snowstorm to the “storm” Democrats will experience if they pass their health care reform bill next week.

“But the fact is that there’s a firestorm out there in America,” he said. “That firestorm says, ‘Stop this. Stop this. We want to know what’s in this legislation.’”

Even President Obama, who earlier this year derided Washingtonians for their handling of winter storms, had to quickly readjust his schedule at a major climate change summit, leaving Copenhagen before the final vote because of “weather constraints.”

The Chicagoan said, “Because of weather constraints in Washington, I am leaving before the final vote, but we feel confident we are moving in the direction of a significant accord.”

By Friday afternoon, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine had declared a state of emergency.

“The snowfall amounts, along with strong winds, could cause serious problems, including power outages throughout much of Virginia,” Mr. Kaine said in a statement. “Virginians need to pay attention to their local weather forecasters, avoid travel and prepare to be on their own for up to 72 hours.”

D.C. Department of Transportation spokesman John Lisle said the city began treating city roads with salt brine late Thursday - covering elevated roadways, bridges and hilly streets before moving on to the city’s major arteries.

With such a major storm in the forecast, Mr. Lisle said the department would fully deploy its employees Friday, and once enough accumulation had built up, they would plow city streets continuously.

The city has $6.2 million budgeted for snow removal this year, but Mr. Lisle said, “Obviously a big storm can eat up a lot of your budget.”

If the forecast proved correct, Mr. Jackson said, this weekend could produce one of the biggest three-day snowfalls recorded in the area.

A little snow later in the week could provide the second white Christmas of the decade. In 2002, eight-tenths of an inch fell on Christmas Eve, and two-tenths of an inch fell on Christmas Day.

Area residents on Friday crowded stores to stock up for the storm.

In the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, residents complained that shopping centers were crowded and that snow shovels and other supplies were sold out at several stores.

Julia Brennan of Burke had trouble finding a parking space Friday afternoon at the Safeway store on Burke Centre Parkway.

“The parking lot was completely full,” she said.

She said that once inside the crowded store, she was disappointed to find its supply of ice-melt crystals was already gone.

“But I found some at the CVS,” a beaming Ms. Brennan said. “Do you need some?”

Analysts said the loss of a weekend shopping day so close to Christmas could hurt retailers.

“When you lose a day of sales between now and Dec. 25, you don’t make it up,” Stifel Nicolaus analyst Richard Jaffe told the Associated Press. “If you’re closed for business on Saturday, you’re not going to do twice the business on Sunday.”

Even when major storms don’t materialize, forecasts can keep shoppers home.

“When the radio says, ‘Stay tuned, don’t leave your house, this is the storm of ‘09,’” that’s bad for business, Mr. Jaffe said.

Allison Fischer, a spokeswoman for Tysons Corner Centre, said the mall doesn’t keep figures on the number of visitors, but that Friday the mall was “very busy.” As of mid-afternoon Friday, the mall was scheduled to be open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.

“We’re very excited for the weekend,” she said.

Dean Honeycutt, Sean Lengell, Jennifer Haberkorn and S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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