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Washington shuts down, buried in record snowfall

Flights are grounded and power outages are widespread as the capital slumbers under more than 32 inches of snow.

February 07, 2010|By Peter Nicholas

Reporting from Alexandria, Va. — A prolonged blizzard covered Washington, D.C., and the mid-Atlantic states in a smothering canvas of snow Saturday, grounding planes and triggering widespread power outages as people across the region turned to skis and sleds to traverse icy roads.

The storm proved a major disruption, with above-ground subways and buses in the Washington area shutting down and stores closing en masse in the face of a storm destined to go down as one of the major snowfalls in the area's history.

As of late afternoon, a total of 32.4 inches was recorded at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, according to the National Weather Service. That two-day accumulation topped the previous record, compiled during the blizzard of January 1996, the weather service said.

Hundreds of thousands of homes in Maryland, Virginia and elsewhere lost power. Trees toppled under the snow's weight, blocking roads. Snowplows worked overtime to keep the streets cleared. Flights were canceled at Washington's major airports.

Not even the presidential motorcade was able to navigate the city's streets unscathed. An ambulance hit an SUV in the motorcade before President Obama's entourage left the White House on Saturday morning to address the Democratic National Committee at a hotel several blocks away. No one was hurt.

At the event, Obama asked after the whereabouts of Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-San Jose). "He's on his way," Obama said. "He's still shoveling."

While the president normally portrays himself as a hardy Chicagoan accustomed to bad weather, even he seemed impressed by the storm's ferocity. He called the blizzard "Snowmaggedon."

The storm created some otherworldly moments in the Washington area, with people moving up and down side streets on cross-country skis and solitary pedestrians trudging along the middle of major roads, clutching groceries purchased in the few convenience stores that remained open.

An Alexandria, Va., woman had wrapped her small dog in a sweater and taken him -- reluctantly -- for a walk. After disappearing in a foot of snow, the dog "gave me a look like, 'Are you crazy?' " she said.

Rather than stay inside and clean her house, Laurie Thompson, 55, of Alexandria chose to put on her hiking boots and go out for a walk, camera in hand. She described the storm as at once "horrible" and "beautiful."

A few blocks away, a tree weighted down with snow had snapped at the base and fallen across a side street, creating an impassable barrier.

The blizzard followed a storm Dec. 19 that dropped more than 16 inches on the area. Washington has gotten more than a foot of snow only 13 times since 1870, according to the weather service.

Assessing the damage Saturday, some residents seemed stunned.

In Silver Spring, Md., the sheer volume of wet, heavy snow ripped a metal awning attached to Dan Steinberg's Colonial-style home. "This is crazy," he said.

In the nation's capital, impassable sidewalks along 16th Street Northwest, a vital north-south artery, forced pedestrians into the middle of the street. Snowplows struggled. Snowboarders and skiers traveled down a hill in the Adams Morgan neighborhood.

Some of the brave few who did venture outdoors in the nation's capital were met with disappointment at one local Starbucks: A sign said the shop would remain closed until further notice.

peter.nicholas@ latimes.com

Mark Silva in Chicago and Andrew Zajac and James Oliphant in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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