A winter snowfall Tuesday morning provided an early test for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, but a flat-footed response to a storm that provided headaches to commuters across the region left city officials scrambling for excuses.
About 2 to 4 inches of snow fell across the D.C. area, prompting complaints that schools and government offices should have opened late — if at all. And while forecasters say the snowfall has ended, temperatures are expected to be at or below freezing in coming days, with the wind chill plummeting to zero.
“I think that there certainly are some lessons we can learn. It wasn’t the smoothest commute,” Ms. Bowser said Tuesday morning as she toured the Barracks Row neighborhood in Southeast.
“I think we saw the snow start a little earlier and come a little bit faster than was predicted, but I think we got a lot of apparatus out,” she said of the city’s response, which included deployment of more than 200 of its 345 pieces of snow removal equipment.
Residents waiting for buses nearby were less impressed by the mayor’s first effort.
“Poor,” said 81-year-old Mary Cooper, when asked how she’d rate the mayor’s snow response. “It looks like she wasn’t used to snow.”
While the brick sidewalks of Barracks Row were shoveled clean, wheelchair-bound Ms. Cooper remarked that a few blocks off the beaten path there was no sign of any attempt to clear the pathways.
Along Georgia Avenue in Northwest, residents tiptoed gingerly in the busy thoroughfare to make their way around slippery sidewalks.
But the streets were just as bad as the sidewalks in other areas.
David Spears, 54, said it took him two hours by bus to get from his home in Northeast to a morning class he attends in Southeast — a trip that typically takes an hour.
“They could have more trucks out and started a little earlier than they did,” Mr. Spears said.
One decision he agreed with, however, was the determination to keep schools open.
“The kids don’t need to miss school for an inch of snow,” Mr. Spears said.
Ms. Bowser said her goal is to keep the city running through a snow storm whenever possible.
“We just wanted to clear the snow and let people go about their normal lives, going to work, going to school and having business and commerce continue in the city,” said Ms. Bowser, who after seven years on the D.C. Council was sworn in as mayor last week. “My philosophy is that the government should be open whenever possible. That includes schools. We have to make decisions that keep our employees and children safe.”
Slick roadways restricted the movement of Metro buses Tuesday, with drivers sticking to snow routes that included mostly major arteries.
Bill Howland, director of the city’s Department of Public Works, told The Associated Press that brine solution used to treat roads didn’t work as well as expected because of lower temperatures.
That much was evident to Capitol Hill resident Yolanda Rodriguez, as her family struggled to try and get her 4-year-old son to his D.C. Public Schools preschool program and her older sons to private schools that eventually cancelled classes altogether.
Her husband left home at 6:30 a.m. to get 4-year-old Adrian to school in Mount Pleasant, only to get stuck for two hours in traffic along the way.
Eventually, he gave up and came home with the boy in tow. And Mrs. Rodriguez, who had the day off anyhow, bundled up and spent the morning hours helping her son build a snowman.
“D.C. has been really bad because if they call it, they are always the latest,” Mrs. Rodriguez said of the school system. “It’s not better than what we’ve see in the past years.”
It wasn’t just the District that underestimated the storm.
“Based on the weather forecasts, our crews anticipated a much milder snow event today,” Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan said. “By the time it was clear that frigid temperatures were causing hazardous conditions, thousands of commuters and parents driving kids to school were already on the move.”
Traffic was backed up on the Beltway and major corridors across the region as commuters made their way to work Tuesday morning.
Many Maryland schools, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties canceled classes Tuesday. But in Virginia, Fairfax County school officials found themselves apologizing for their decision to keep schools open.
“We apologize for the difficulties the weather caused this morning,” a statement issued by the school system read. “Please know that significant area government entities were coordinating at a very early hour. The decision was made with the best information we had very early this morning. Needless to say, the conditions were far worse than anticipated.”
Fairfax police said officers responded to 234 crashes between 5:30 and 11:30 a.m.
Forecasters said the threat of snow was over Tuesday afternoon but would be replaced by warnings of bitter cold.
“The snow is pretty much just a memory now. The next thing is cold temperatures,” National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Woodcock said.
The freezing cold and plummeting wind chills may well prompt the next test for the Bowser administration as officials will have to mobilize to provide shelter for the city’s homeless population.
Despite the criticism, the year’s first snow is hardly the first to prove a stumbling block for a local politician.
Former Mayor Vincent C. Gray took criticism in 2013 for shuttering schools under the threat of a snowstorm that turned out to do little more than wet the streets.
And former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s firm stand against closing city schools during storms earned him criticism in February 2008, after a snow and ice storm brought every other surrounding jurisdiction to a halt.