Forecast brings shopping blizzard

Bread is shoveled out as foot of snow possible

March 04, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

On a day when joggers were down to T-shirts and shorts and a chevron of geese filled the air heading north, Baltimore prepared for a blizzard.

Two major storm systems - a wet one moving through the South and a frigid one coming down from Canada - were on a collision course, threatening to create a storm in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic the likes of which has not been seen since 1966.

The National Weather Service said heavy snowfall could begin this afternoon, blanketing an area from Washington to southern Maine with at least a foot of snow - in some areas more.

Though the temperature neared 60 degrees yesterday, that did not stop the well-worn rituals of pre-storm trips to the supermarket, where long lines were the rule.

"I just hope we get some snow out of this," said Marilyn Gordon-el, a checker at the Super Fresh in Hampden, where customers were parking in the roadways and carts were hard to find. "The last time they drove us this crazy, it didn't even snow."

That would be back in January when another storm coming from the South stayed offshore. But some remembered 1993 when more than a foot fell in mid-March.

The blank spaces on the supermarket shelves were in the usual spots - the single rolls of toilet paper were scarce, bread was moving briskly and milk was being replenished with regularity.

At the Safeway on 25th Street, there was no whole milk left late yesterday afternoon, though shoppers could still subsist on 2 percent and skim. "It started like this last night," said a checker as she surveyed the long lines. "And it's been like this all day."

There were more than 20 people waiting in line for Graul's in Ruxton to open at 9 a.m. while the Mars in Lutherville was already bereft of bread at that hour.

At that point, the forecasts were calling for snow to start this morning, but as the day wore on, meteorologists said precipitation would begin as rain with the hour of snowfall pushed back, though it could last through Tuesday.

The State Highway Department planned a strategy session for last night, but delayed it to this morning when the forecast changed, according to spokeswoman Valerie Edgar.

"If it goes into Monday, that presents a challenge, because then you get into rush hour," Edgar said. "This has really been an interesting forecast. Like a lot this winter, it's been borderline. But we're prepared, no matter what."

A survey of store shelves showed that another item has been added to the normal troika of toilet paper, milk and bread. Bottled water was also moving briskly.

Though that seems like a leftover from Y2K panic, Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for Baltimore's Department of Public Works, says it actually makes more sense than a lot of storm shopping habits.

"We do advise people to have some water on hand in case of a major electrical outage," he said. "But that doesn't mean make a run on stores. If you have couple of pitchers, you can just fill those up. Baltimore water is fine; you don't need the bottled stuff."

Kocher also advised getting prescriptions filled and buying a few batteries. And if the snow does come, keeping cars off the streets to make plowing easier.

"If you have a driveway, use it," he said. "If you park on the street, get together with your neighbors and agree to park on one side."

Edgar and Kocher both said there are plentiful supplies of salt on hand.

Such melting chemicals were another hot item among shoppers yesterday.

At Wheeler's True Value Hardware in Deale in Anne Arundel County, manager Frank Pleasant said, "People are panicking."

"Sales are brisk whenever something like this is reported," he said. "It's not a precise science, though. You never know what's going to happen."

Entertainment to get through those long hours inside was also popular.

At Potomac Video in Edgewater, new releases were practically all rented by 2 p.m., according to Jon Dorey, a clerk.

"By tonight, everything will be pretty much gone," he said. "It's like that whenever there's a call for snow."

The warmer-than-expected temperatures in the Baltimore-Washington area yesterday could mean that the region will receive more rain than heavy snowfall, meteorologists said.

Michael Eckert, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service, called the late-winter storm rare in that it represented the combination of two mighty weather systems.

Eckert said the storm remained in its "infancy stage" yesterday. He said an extremely wet system coming out of Mexico had been dumping torrential rains across Texas and the Gulf Coast region. Some areas have received up to 5 inches of rain in the past day.

Authorities posted tornado watches from southeastern Mississippi all the way into the panhandle of Florida and southern parts of Alabama, as well as flash flood warnings across Louisiana, southern Mississippi and southern Alabama. Georgia also was under a severe thunderstorm warning.

Experts said the brewing storm might not be the biggest blizzard in decades but could very well become the biggest of its kind in 35 years.

"This one has similarities to the storm in late January of 1966," Eckert said. "That one produced blizzard conditions over New England and New York, and there also was quite a bit of heavy snow down into the Washington area."

That storm blanketed a large area with 2 to 3 feet of snow, with some locations east of Lake Ontario getting 6 feet of snow. Eckert said the key to the magnitude of the storm would be where the rain began to turn into snow.

Staff writers Laura Barnhardt and Frederick N. Rasmussen and Reuters contributed to this article.

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