Snow snarls roads, shuts schools, stirs tempers Storm turns to rain in much of state

electricity out

Shore fears flooding

December 11, 1992|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

A powerful winter storm swept over the Northeast yesterday burying mountainous Western Maryland in snow while wind and heavy rain buffeted the rest of the state.

The winds played havoc with electrical power last night in Central Maryland as trees, limbs and poles were toppled onto Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. lines.

By 10 p.m., service to nearly 47,000 of the company's approximately 1 million customers had been affected, a spokesman said.

Heavy snow and high winds were reported westward from Hancock, in Washington County, last night. But the snow -- first of the season in the Baltimore area -- had changed to rain #F everywhere else in Maryland, and flooding and beach erosion were the major concerns for today.

"People talk about being a diverse state as far as weather," said Fred Davis, chief meteorologist in the National Weather Service's office at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, observing the differences that mountains and a few degrees of temperature made.

Garrett County, he said, could see snow depths of 18 to 24 inches before the storm ends late today, with 12 to 16 inches in much of Allegany County.

Statewide, Mr. Davis said, the biggest problem could be high winds -- blowing the snow and reducing visibility to zero in the west, while churning up the surf and tides to threaten coastal beaches.

Ocean City workers closed the steel gates of the sea wall yesterday as a precaution against sand washing over pedestrian promenades, and took down holiday decorations that had been set up near the inlet for a Christmas on the Beach promotion.

"Other than that, what else can we do?" said the town manager, Dennis W. Dare.

At the other extreme, town police in the aptly named Allegany town of Frostburg said that 14 inches of snow had piled up by 7 o'clock last night, and their best guess was that 30 inches might be on the ground by today. With drifts of 3 to 4 feet lining the streets -- in a snowstorm described as the worst in a decade -- dozens of people bundled up and went walking through their not-even-winter-yet wonderland.

"A lot of people are just braving it and having a wonderful time, walking up and down main street," said Sharon Minnick, a dispatcher for the Frostburg police. "It's just like the North Pole here. I think people are expecting Santa Claus to come sliding in at any minute."

Snow began falling in the southern and western parts of Maryland before dawn, intensifying so quickly that officials closed schools in Allegany, Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Garrett and Washington counties. Schools in Howard and Prince George's opened two hours late.

John Robertson Sr., assistant superintendent of Westminster's roads department, said that the city's trucks were battling the snow 10 minutes after it began falling but had a hard time keeping pace.

At BWI Airport, 1 1/2 inches of snow had fallen, and the two main runways had to be shut down for clearing before the changeover to rain occurred at 9:40 a.m.

Over the course of the day that changeover moved north and west across the state. That was not in time to save commuters grief in the morning rush hours. Police reported numerous accidents on slick roads throughout the region. As soon as the snow began to fall, it "immediately began to stick," said Baltimore County Police Sgt. Ronald P. Stotler. "Accidents are all over the place."

"A police colonel I was talking to said it took him two hours to get from Reisterstown down I-795." He left at 8 a.m. and was just getting to the Beltway at 10," said county police spokesman E. Jay Miller.

Parts of Interstates 70 and 95 were "almost like parking lots," said Battalion Chief Donald R. Howell, spokesman for Howard County's fire and rescue services. Among the worst sections, he said, was a section of I-70 just east of the Patapsco River border with Baltimore County, where two pickup trucks collided and triggered six or seven other accidents, involving 30 cars but no serious injuries, Mr. Howell said.

"In a word, horrible," said state police Sgt. James E. Huber, describing the accident situation on major highways across Maryland -- most of them traffic-stopping fender-benders "where one where one car bounces off another and ends up in a ditch."

In the Baltimore area, winds picked up dramatically about 7 p.m., uprooting trees, knocking down poles and sending debris flying. The falling trees and flying limbs hit not only power lines, but several houses and cars as well.

The storm was a double-header of sorts, resulting from a marriage of two moisture-laden low-pressure systems -- one approaching from the southwest and the other, and more serious threat, developing off the southeast coast.

That rapidly intensifying low pressure area was moving northeastward into south central Virginia last night and was expected to slow down overnight and be near Salisbury by this morning.

The Weather Service warned that winds likely would increase to 35 to 45 knots from the east and southeast as the storm approached the Delmarva peninsula by morning. Waves along the coast were expected to increase to a pounding 8 to 12 feet, posing the worst threat of beach erosion.

"The combination of high astronomical tides and strong easterly winds will cause tides to be 2 to 3 feet above normal," the Weather Service said. "Heavy wave action . . . will also cause beach erosion."

Along the Delaware shore, winds were clocked as high as 50 mph yesterday afternoon, with beach erosion already reported at Bethany Beach from waves up to 6 feet battering the shore.

In Western Maryland, the snow was expected to continue today -- perhaps mixing with rain or freezing rain in some sections -- before colder air arrives tonight. And snow showers remained possible into the weekend.

"This thing isn't over, but it's going to be winding down," said Weather Service meteorologist Ken Shaver.

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