- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2009

LONDON | A winter storm born in the heart of Russia and sweeping in from continental Europe blanketed Britain in the heaviest snowfall in nearly two decades Monday, nearly paralyzing London and doing what the Nazi Blitz of World War II could never manage bring the capital’s buses to a complete halt.

Across the country, some 800 flights were canceled, more than 2,800 schools closed, courts were shut down and motorists sat in traffic jams stretching 50 miles or more as snow piled up.

Then came warnings of ice, which was expected last night to coat everything from beaches to mountains.

London’s Heathrow airport, one of the largest and busiest in the world, saw its runways forced into idleness until just before sunset, with the threat of further closures in the night’s snows and ice. Passengers with tickets were told not to bother showing up.

In its opening volley, the storm swirled in on fierce, Arctic-style winds targeting London and the populous southeast before dawn and into the morning rush hour Monday.

The Federation of Small Businesses estimated that some 6.4 million people about one-fifth of Britain’s total work force never made it to their jobs. Those millions of individual decisions, the FSB estimated, would cost the nation’s already credit-crunched economy about $1.7 billion for each day the country remains snowbound.

That could be more days to come. By late Monday afternoon, weather forecasters were predicting the big freeze could last until the weekend, with ice and sleet moving in to add to the winter’s treachery.

Not since February 1991 has London and southeast England been hit so badly. During that winter, the heart of the capital was caught in the chill grip of a foot of snow.

By mid-afternoon Monday, this new snowfall was already eight inches deep in the city and predicted by forecaster Thomaz Schafernaker to exceed that by several inches.

At its Monday peak, the storm had forced the full or partial closedown of 10 of London’s 11 underground rail lines that the city’s millions of workers depend upon to get them to and from their offices and homes.

Above ground, hundreds of London’s traditional red buses stopped running, withdrawn from service because of what transportation officials described as “adverse weather and dangerous driving conditions.”

Not even during the 57 days that the capital was blitzed by Nazi Germany’s bombers during 1940-41 were its buses totally halted from making their daily runs.

Meanwhile, hospitals in London issued emergency calls to doctors, nurses and other medical staff to make their way into work to deal with an anticipated flood of accidents and other casualties of the wintry onslaught.

London Mayor Boris Johnson conceded that the city was ill-prepared for a winter storm of this magnitude.

“This is the kind of snow we haven’t seen in decades,” he said. “We don’t have the snow plows that we would otherwise need to be sure of getting the roads free.”

“The difficulty really has been that the volume of snow has been so huge that you can put down grit, put down the salt, but then it simply snows over it again,” Mr. Johnson said.

David Brown of Transport for London, which runs the rail and bus systems, insisted that his department was, in fact, “prepared in the sense that our cold weather plans were put into place.”

What went a bit askew, he conceded, was that “the volume of snow falling during the middle of the night was very difficult for us.”

Outside Banjo’s Sandwich Shop in London’s business district, a sign board sign read: “Free snow with all purchases.”

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, already under siege over the economic crisis, was in no mood for frivolity.

“We are doing everything in our power to ensure services, road, rail and airports are open as quickly as possible,” he said.

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