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Snowstorm Buries D.C. Region

Two feet or more was forecast by today, one of the highest amounts in years. With roads dangerous, life grinds to a halt for the most part.

February 17, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A powerful snowstorm battered the East Coast on Sunday, disrupting life in the nation's capital, forcing road closures and prompting hospitals to send out an SOS for SUV owners to help transport medical personnel.

"Stay home" was the order of the day. Forecasts called for the storm to blanket the Washington region with 2 feet or more of snow, making it one of the heaviest snowfalls in years.

Declaring a state of emergency in Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. issued an order forbidding travel on roads to all but emergency vehicles and those providing essential services. Roads affected included the portion of the Beltway around the nation's capital that runs through the state, as well as Interstate 95, a major north-south thoroughfare. The Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which runs parallel to I-95, also was closed.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams curtailed his vacation in sunny Puerto Rico to return home, mindful of other big-city chiefs whose political careers were cut short by their poor responses to snowstorms. But because of airport closings, the nearest he could get was Newark, N.J., where he caught a train to Washington.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport was virtually shut down Sunday, with flights from as close as Philadelphia and as far away as Accra, the capital of Ghana, canceled. Travelers were told to rebook for flights leaving no earlier than this afternoon, and hotels turned away would-be guests who streamed in from the airport. Reagan National Airport, just south of Washington, also was closed, while Dulles International Airport, about 25 miles west of the city, had one runway open Sunday afternoon.

Even President Bush didn't escape the snow.

His Sunday morning trip back to the White House from Camp David in western Maryland -- usually 30 minutes by helicopter or 90 minutes by car -- took 2 1/2 hours.

Half a dozen plows cleared part of Interstate 270 about 15 minutes ahead of the president's 14-vehicle motorcade, although White House officials said that effort was unrelated to the president's return.

"This is a big one," said Robert Sloan, chief executive of Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, which received more than 100 responses to its call for volunteers with four-wheel-drive vehicles to pick up doctors and nurses stranded at home.

At least six deaths related to bad weather were reported -- one in West Virginia and five in the Midwest, where the storm began Friday. Farther south, the huge system resulted in heavy rains and thunderstorms that caused severe flooding.

West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise and Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner declared states of emergency. Wise cited heavy snow in the northern part of his state and flooding in the south, while Warner said some southwestern Virginia counties were being evacuated. Sections of nearly 130 roads were closed in that part of the state, a spokeswoman for Virginia's Department of Transportation said.

Cpl. Rob Moroney of the Maryland State Police said the snow was falling so rapidly that "as fast as I could clean it off my car, I had to clean it again." His agency responded to "scores of minor traffic crashes and hundreds of disabled vehicles."

Troopers reported that many drivers were "endangering their safety simply to drive around in the storm" and urged people to use common sense. The governor's order forbidding all but essential travel was due to expire at 4 a.m. today but could be extended if conditions warranted.

Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who issued a similar order, said visibility on the roads was less than an eighth of a mile. "I strongly urge and direct people currently in Delaware to remain where they are," she said.

Fire hydrants in the District of Columbia disappeared under the thick blanket of snow. An armada of snowplow drivers, working 12-hour shifts, hit the streets. Church services and sporting events were canceled.

In Virginia, Paul Bledsoe was at Pentagon City Mall in Arlington with his 2-year-old son Sunday morning when security officers ordered the 100 or so shoppers out and closed the mall. On his way home, Bledsoe said, he saw about five cars stuck in the road along a three-mile stretch.

"In 20 years of living here, this is the worst I've seen it," he said. "When D.C. gets snow, it always reminds me of JFK's great line that Washington was a city of 'Southern efficiency and Northern charm.' "

While acknowledging the problems created by the snow, officials expressed relief that the storm had arrived on a Sunday, one day before the Presidents Day holiday.

The storm was adding to state budget problems, putting Maryland's $21-million snow removal budget in the red by $14 million. Even before the latest snowfall, Virginia already was $2 million over its $48-million snow removal budget.

But officials said they would spend whatever is necessary to clear the streets. "We have a 'plow now, pay later' philosophy," said Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mayor Williams.

The biggest snowstorm to hit Washington was on Jan. 27-28, 1922, dropping 28 inches.

By 4 p.m. Sunday, about 18 inches had fallen in parts of Maryland and Virginia. More snow was expected today.

*

Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Edwin Chen contributed to this report.

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