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Washington, D.C., is clobbered with snow again

The snowiest winter since records were first kept in the 1880s paralyzes the region, shutting down the federal government, airports and schools.

February 10, 2010|By Bob Drogin

Reporting from Silver Spring, Md. — A fierce winter storm walloped Washington and the mid-Atlantic region for the second time in less than a week Wednesday, closing the federal government, airports and schools while inspiring a mix of awe and dread among millions of snowbound families.

The daylong blizzard raged from Virginia to New York as heavy snow and gale-force winds toppled trees, brought down power lines and created white-out conditions that made many roads treacherous to impassable.

The storm began with sleet and freezing rain Tuesday, and by dusk Wednesday, up to a foot of fresh snow billowed atop the 2 to 3 feet that paralyzed the nation's capital last weekend. That monster storm -- referred to locally as Snowmageddon, Snowpocalypse and Snowzilla -- already was one of the heaviest on record.

Airlines canceled hundreds of flights, disrupting air travel and cargo services across the country, while Amtrak canceled dozens of passenger trains along the Eastern Seaboard and west to Chicago.

The three major airports that serve the Washington area were closed until visibility improved and crews could clear snow-clogged runways.

"The problem is everything," said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. "The problem is this is Day 6."

The latest clobbering makes it official: This is the snowiest winter in the Washington region since records were first kept in the 1880s, the National Weather Service announced. And it's not over: Meteorologists said another storm may slam the area Monday.

In New York, the United Nations, Statue of Liberty, schools, zoos, courts, and even a facility to help victims of Haiti's earthquake were shuttered as the icy onslaught neared. Broadway's theaters declined to dim their lights, however, and shows went on.

By sunset, the pelting snow had turned to icy rain. Grand Central Terminal, usually a riot of humanity at evening rush hour, resembled a sleepy Sunday morning.

Maryland appeared to bear the brunt of the storm. Gov. Martin O'Malley told reporters at midafternoon that numerous roofs had collapsed and more than 30,000 homes had lost power -- a figure expected to rise as the storm intensified.

Driving was so dangerous, however, that Pepco, an electric utility, ordered its crews to temporarily stop repairing downed power lines and crippled equipment. Some neighborhoods have not had power since Friday.

Snowplows and salt trucks struggled to keep up as wind-whipped snow covered streets as quickly as they were cleared. But as the hazards grew, officials ordered the plows to pull over in Washington and nearby suburbs for several hours Wednesday morning.

State officials pleaded with residents to stay indoors except for emergencies. Stranded drivers were warned to stay in their vehicles and call 911 rather than risk battling the elements.

"This is a very dangerous situation," said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican. The wind chill creates "significant risk for injury or worse."

In Pennsylvania, officials closed a major north-south artery, Interstate 81, because of icy roads and zero visibility.

"You will risk your life and potentially the lives of others if you get stuck on highways or any roads," Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell warned.

Washington's Metro subway lines stopped service to above-ground stations, and Metrobuses stayed parked. Postal service was suspended in the Washington area, and weary educators in surrounding counties surrendered and canceled school for the week.

The federal government stayed closed for the third straight day, the longest weather-related closure since 1996, and planned to close Thursday too. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which makes the decision, estimates that the government loses $100 million in productivity each day it stays shut.

But Linda Springer, who ran the office from 2005 to 2008, said only 15% of the federal workforce lives in the area. And many crucial functions, such as payroll, take place far from the capital.

"Not everything happens in D.C.," Springer said. "I don't think there's any need for concern that government can't do all things that are essential."

In Congress, the House canceled votes for the rest of the week. Democratic leaders in the Senate said they may call a session Thursday, although many members remained stuck out of town.

At CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., much of the workforce stayed home. A senior official said a "couple of hundred" people showed up, and analysts and other employees in especially crucial assignments -- including the spy agency's operations center -- have taken turns camping in their offices since last weekend.

"Al Qaeda doesn't take a snow day, and neither do we," the official said.

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