After record Md. snowfall - a deluge?

Road clearing continues

predicted rain, possible floods extend emergency

The Snowstorm Of 2003

February 21, 2003|By Johnathon E. Briggs and Frank D. Roylance | Johnathon E. Briggs and Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Exhausted public works crews still reeling from the Baltimore region's largest recorded snowstorm are eyeing sandbags and racing to clear snow-clogged storm drains after the National Weather Service warned yesterday of yet another storm-related headache - flooding.

The threat posed by massive mounds of melting snow and the pervasiveness of impassable roads forced Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to extend yesterday a state of emergency that allows National Guard troops to continue helping Marylanders get back to normal routines.

In the aftermath of a storm that dumped 28.2 inches on the region, postal workers still trudged through snow-covered streets to reach mailboxes.

Traffic woes eased, but remained. Parents stuck at home with children waited for schools to open.

Cemeteries have been unable to bury the dead because grave markers are covered by snowbanks.

And worries about rooftop cave-ins, perhaps the storm's signature elements of destruction, persist.

"As we move forward in the hours and days ahead, I'm asking for your once-in-a-lifetime patience as we brave this once-in-a-lifetime storm," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said in a public plea yesterday.

He guaranteed passable neighborhood roads by today.

Progress was apparent yesterday on state highways, with more merge areas and shoulders clear, but crews will be working through the weekend to clear all lanes.

As a testament to the scope of the job, the State Highway Administration estimates that it removed 2 billion cubic feet of snow from the interstate highway system and state roads - enough snow to fill 125,000 dump trucks.

Roads aside, weather service officials say approaching rain and rising temperatures threaten a rapid meltdown that could cause area streams to overflow.

The moisture could also overburden storm water systems and snow-covered roofs.

The Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center said yesterday that "significant" river flooding was possible across most of Maryland, Delaware, Northern Virginia, New Jersey and parts of southern Pennsylvania through Tuesday. High water could flood roads and require evacuations.

But forecasters said they were not expecting the flooding effects of the blizzard of 1996, which dropped 22.5 inches in Baltimore before high temperatures and rain triggered the worst Maryland flooding in nearly 25 years.

Temperatures are expected to hit a high of about 50 degrees this week, in contrast to 60-degree post-storm temperatures of 1996, forecasters said.

"The snowmelt [in 1996] occurred much more rapidly than it looks like it will with this system," said weather service meteorologist Richard Hitchens.

The threat is also eased by the amount of melting that already has occurred. Temperatures climbed to 44 degrees yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Less rain expected

Forecasters scaled back earlier predictions of up to 2 inches of rain, saying the region can expect about an inch. But Hitchens concedes that "the [computer] models seem to be having trouble being consistent" with the prediction.

Even so, an inch of rain combined with warmer temperatures could flush enough moisture out of the remaining snowpack to produce runoff equal to at least 2 inches of rain this weekend, Hitchens said.

Substantial flooding could occur, particularly in urban areas where snow on the ground is blocking storm drains, he said.

Public works officials across the region are urging residents to clear snow from storm drains near their homes before the rain starts late today. And some building owners were removing snow from their roofs yesterday as a precaution.

In a race against time along East Baltimore Street yesterday, a public works wastewater crew used long copper pipes to locate storm drains and inlets. Sticking the pipes through the snow, the crew listened for the sound of metal hitting metal - a telltale sign that they had come upon one of the city's 33,000 storm drains.

"There's so much snow, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack," said the crew's foreman, Jerry Butler. "People coming out of their houses were a great help yesterday."

"This is preventive maintenance," he said. "We are all binding together to get the job done."

Steven Mack and Aubrey McMillan, both 21-year-olds working a 12-hour shift, did much of the detective work in locating the drains.

Their supervisor, William Hohman, said there are "photostatic" maps of each and every storm drain stored somewhere, but he and others were familiar with the sidewalk patterns.

"Everybody keeps a photostatic copy in their minds," he said.

In the surrounding counties, highway workers continued to put in overtime.

Howard County crews got a jump on the task, having finished plowing all residential streets by 5 p.m. Wednesday. In Baltimore County, public works crews will be working through tomorrow to help clear 14,400 storm drains. In Harford County, emergency director Douglas Richmond said crews were busy clearing drains because the ground saturation is reaching "a point of no return."

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