The first snow of winter -- a biting, persistent fall that began in time to snarl the evening rush hour yesterday -- brought more snow to the metropolitan area in one evening than had fallen all year.
With forecasters predicting up to 6 inches by midnight, snow that began midafternoon continued to fall heavily around most of Maryland at 11 p.m. By then, snow emergency plans were in effect statewide and nearly 5 inches had accumulated in Baltimore.
Until yesterday, only 3.2 inches of snow had fallen in the Baltimore area this year, most of it in March. The annual snowfall for Maryland is normally about 21 inches.
Yesterday's snow -- which had turned to freezing rain in some suburbs by 11:30 p.m. -- had been predicted on Christmas by National Weather Service forecasters at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Being on the money with the first snow of the season was a confidence builder for forecasters, said meteorologist Fred Davis.
"People will believe us for the rest of the winter," he said, then described how the storm developed.
"We've had some cold air trapped over us for a few days now, and some moist warm air streaming up from the lower Mississippi valley came in over top of it," he said. "Usually it's nothing but rain in December, but this time the cold air was right over top of us when the moisture came in and it resulted in snow."
The snowfall -- by 11 p.m., nearly 6 inches in Westminster and Owings Mills, 5 1/2 inches in Finksburg, but only 2 inches in Southern Maryland -- caused scores of traffic accidents as commuters crept home.
"There's not a stretch of the [Baltimore] Beltway that doesn't have an accident on it," said Cpl. William Johnson of the state police barracks in Woodlawn.
According to one motorist, who said it took him an hour to travel about a mile from the Towson courthouse to the York Road entrance to the Beltway, traffic on the Beltway was moving at 2 mph at 8:30 p.m.
"Two cops were on the exit ramp to Dulaney Valley Raod to make sure only one car at a time got on the ramp in case anyone got stuck," the driver said.
At the intersection of East Saratoga and St. Paul streets downtown, a pair of Mass Transit Administration buses stood stranded, one heading downhill, one heading uphill.
One passenger, Sharon Mayo, got off the uphill bus and said she decided to walk the rest of the way to her job.
Few accidents caused serious injury. Since motorists were moving slowly, state police said, most accidents were caused by cars sliding into one another or off the road.
State and local police were bracing for a tough night and a treacherous rush hour this morning.
"When the temperature goes way down, it's going to be a mess," said Officer Scott Thomas of the Baltimore police traffic unit.
The snow reportedly hit Allegany County first, as early as 1 p.m. Traffic accidents followed almost immediately. By 9 p.m., the snow there was 5 inches deep.
As the storm moved east, so did the rash of fender-benders. State police Cpl. Greg Spickler of the Hagerstown barracks said that as of late afternoon, they had "many, many, many, many accidents . . . all minor, nothing serious."
The snow forced BWI to close from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. so that crews could clear the runways, and it prompted a modest run most places on grocery staples: milk, bread, eggs and toilet paper.
"Eight to 10 inches, people start really hoarding -- this is nothing," said Ed Hayes, the manager of Graul's Market in Annapolis.
Mr. Hayes said he began stocking up on the things people covet when snow hits about two days ago, when he first spotted the storm on a national weather forecast.
The first snowflakes were sighted in Anne Arundel County shortly after 3 p.m. (they arrived in Harford County an hour later) and forced rush-hour drivers to negotiate -- or at least try -- slippery roads that got worse the further one headed north or west.
Anne Arundel's 55 dump trucks began pouring tons of rock salt onto the 1,520 miles of county-maintained roads shortly after 3:30 p.m. and were expected to keep at it through the early morning.
According to Mr. Davis, today's weather will be rotten any way you look at it.
"The snow stopped in Richmond [Va.] at 5 p.m., so we're expecting it to stop around here by midnight. But after it does," he said, "it will be covered with sleet and freezing rain."