Snow packs brutal punch, takes region by surprise

WASHINGTON – A burst of heavy snow at the height of the morning rush mixed with higher than expected accumulation set up the conditions for a disastrous Tuesday morning commute.

Instead of the predicted 1 to 2 inches of snow, closer to 4 to 6 inches fell throughout th region. And initial decisions to keep schools open contributed to heavy traffic volumes on the roads during the heaviest snowfall. Hundreds of accidents – including some involving students – further complicated efforts to clear roads.

Loudoun and Fairfax public schools issued apologies for not delaying or closing school. And in Anne Arundel County, three high students were injured while trying to get to school.

Arlington and the Maryland State Highway Administration issued explanations regarding their efforts to clear roads, saying that the traffic volume and crashes on the roads made it difficult to plow the roads.

“Based on the weather forecasts, our crews anticipated a much milder snow event today,” said Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan in a statement. “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.”

“This morning’s efforts to clear the snow primarily were impacted by the volume of traffic. Crews can also be delayed by crashes resulting from vehicles driving too fast for conditions.  Please put your safety and the safety of others ahead of the need to get where you’re going quickly by following the rules of the road,” the Maryland State Highway Administration said in a statement.

 

A similar scenario unfolded on Jan. 26, 2011 when a well-forecast storm dropped 3 to 8 inches of snow during the afternoon rush hour creating travel nightmares that collectively became known as “Carmageddon.”

Timing is everything when it comes to how Washington reacts to snow, says Dan Hofmann with the National Weather Service. “It was the worst possible time for snow, whether it was a quarter of an inch or four inches.”

“We knew there was going to be widespread snowfall and we knew the potential was there for some areas to pick up 3 to 5 inches. That is what happened right across the Washington D.C. metro area. If it had happened overnight… the impact presumably would have been a lot less.”

Drivers reported their normal commutes of 30 minutes took hours and some said it took them as long as three hours to make it into work.

Commuters encountered snow-covered roads on U.S. 50 in Maryland and on Route 28 in Virginia. Georgetown Pike was all-but shut down with cars littering the sides of the curvy, hilly road. Police responded to hundreds of slide-offs, spin-outs and vehicles stuck in or on the sides of the snowy roads.

School buses were similarly ensnarled in the deeper-than-expected snow, taking much longer to arrive at their destinations.

“Anytime a storm rolls through during rush hour, especially when it’s supposed to be minimal and the next thing you know, it becomes an overachiever like this seems to have become. “With the ice, the snow and the amount of traffic on the road, it made for a very challenging morning,” says Lt. TJ Smith with Anne Arundel County police.

Although the snow has continued to taper off, the cold temperatures will remain  making re-freezing slush and icy roads a concern as the sun sets.

“We just want to encourage people to not get on the roads if you don’t have to,” says Smith. “Just take your time. It’s going to take you much longer to get where you need to be today. And don’t rush to get there because if you do, that’s when problems can occur.”

WTOP’s Dave Dildine and Megan Cloherty contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter and on Facebook.

 

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