The region’s largest December snowstorm played havoc with the Washington area on Saturday, choking off major highways, forcing a halt to most public transportation and prompting authorities to appeal for residents to stay in their homes.
Road crews worked around the clock in a generally losing battle against the snow, which fell at a pace of more than 2 inches an hour during the early afternoon and left stalled or wrecked vehicles littering the shoulders of the Capital Beltway and other major routes.
Virginia State Police said troopers responded to more than 1,800 traffic crashes and disabled vehicles between midnight Friday and noon Saturday.
• Snowstorm crawls up the East Coast
• Storm cuts into weekend retail sales
As the snow began tapering off Saturday evening, preliminary National Weather Service measurements showed some parts of the District had received more than 16 inches, easily surpassing the record for a December snowstorm of 12 inches, set in 1932.
As of 5:30 p.m., Gaithersburg had 16.6 inches, Bowie had 15.5 inches, Centreville had 19 inches, Fairfax Station had 17 inches and Alexandria had 14.5 inches in the greater Washington, D.C., area.
The storm also brought misery for hard-pressed retailers, keeping away customers on what’s called “Super Saturday,” during the last weekend before Christmas.
Many stores, which normally open early and stay open late to accommodate holiday shoppers, were forced to do the opposite. Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg and Tysons Galleria in McLean closed at 2 p.m. on what should have been one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
“You are looking at your busiest day of the year and taking it away,” Steven Aarons, manager of the D.C. toy store Barston’s Child’s Play, told the Associated Press.
The busiest merchants were those selling snow shovels, sleds, ice remover and other winter-weather items. The Ace Hardware store in the Glover Park area of Northwest Washington posted a sign in its window saying shovels, sleds and toboggans were sold out.
That was frustrating for Christine Andreen, 24, who spent the early afternoon trekking through the storm with her dog in a fruitless search for a sled. But it didn’t dent her enthusiasm.
“I’m from Alabama. I’ve never seen this much snow,” she said.
Katie Schiavi, 27, and her boyfriend, Eric Oberhofer, 27, said they had been walking around Glover Park trying to find a place to eat before giving up and going to their local Starbucks, which they found full of families.
“Everything is shutting down,” Miss Schiavi said. “This is completely unusual. This usually happens in January and February.”
Pedestrians like Miss Schiavi and Mr. Oberhofer fared better than most motorists, many of whom clogged the region’s snow-packed highways in spite of repeated public advisories on local radio and television stations.
“I am urging everyone to take extra precautions if you need to be out, and if you do not, to please stay off the District roadways,” said D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who conducted a midday press conference outdoors in the swirling snow.
The National Weather Service said a winter storm warning would remain in effect until 6 a.m. Sunday. Temperatures on Sunday were expected to remain around 30 degrees.
Authorities said motorists were hindering snowplow efforts, which were difficult enough with the snow falling faster than it could be cleared. Many of those who ignored the warnings found themselves trapped in deep snow.
“It is just hard to keep up with it,” said John Lisle, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation. Shortly after noon, he said, some roadways had been plowed three times and were covered again.
“It is a challenging storm, no doubt about it. The hard thing for us is managing expectations,” he said. “This is the most challenging storm we’ve dealt with in a number of years.”
In Georgetown, authorities ticketed and towed cars along Wisconsin Avenue, one of the city’s snow emergency routes.
Mr. Lisle said city workers had been ticketing and towing vehicles parked on the snow emergency routes through the night.
The storm also disrupted other modes of transportation. Metro shut down service on Metrobus, MetroAccess and its rail system at 39 aboveground stations at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
“We cannot and will not operate in an unsafe environment,” Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said.
Amtrak reported delays of up to an hour along the Northeast Corridor.
Virtually all flights were canceled at local airports. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority closed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, while officials at Washington Dulles International Airport worked to keep one runway open.