Rush of freezing rain leaves a slippery, dangerous mess

Ice topples power lines

streams reach flood level

February 07, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A steely day of freezing rain and melting ice glazed streets and sidewalks and filled streams to overflowing yesterday across Central Maryland.

The miserable weather closed schools, triggered dozens of minor auto accidents and sent a surge of unlucky pedestrians to the hospital with broken bones.

The rush of rain - and melting snow and ice - flooded streams and closed many low-lying roads, while ice-coated trees tore down power lines in Western Maryland, plunging 12,000 Marylanders into darkness.

"It will probably be Sunday before everybody's back in service," said Allen Staggers, a spokesman for Allegheny Power.

The freezing rain began early yesterday as warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico rolled over a lower layer of cold air east of the Appalachians.

Rain, forming in the 45-degree air aloft, fell through the cold air near the surface, where it froze on contact with the ground, according to Todd Miner, at Penn State Weather Communications Group in State College, Pa.

Slowly, the rain warmed the cold air, and it stopped freezing. But it kept raining, and more freezing was possible overnight. The National Weather Service extended winter weather advisories and flood warnings until midnight.

Streams from Montgomery County to Cecil County were already flowing at record highs for the date yesterday.

Flash-flood warnings were issued for Carroll, Howard, Harford and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City. The weather service also warned that ice jams could cause rapid flooding in some locations.

But relief is at hand. Skies should be clear and sunny through Monday, with high temperatures in the upper 30s and low 40s.

Yesterday began badly, and just got worse.

The freezing rain that began just after midnight left a glaze of ice on steps, sidewalks and side streets by daybreak. Commuters had to scrape the ice from their car windows before rolling out into traffic.

Pedestrians who ventured out sometimes landed in area emergency rooms. "It was fairly slow until about noon, and then things got busy," said Michael Schwartzberg, a spokesman for Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

GBMC doctors treated about 10 patients with weather-related fractures yesterday, including several with broken wrists, rib fractures and broken hips.

Such accidents were common all week, hospital officials elsewhere said. Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore treated 15 people for a range of weather-related injuries Thursday, but saw only one or two slip-and-fall victims yesterday, said Chris Wilde, a physicians assistant.

Baltimore County police reported more than two dozen car crashes attributed to the icy streets yesterday. Once motorists hit the primary roads, the going was better, with most pavement just wet, thanks to overnight salting.

But the ice put an insulating glaze on the catenary wires that power the region's light rail trains. That put the trains out of service until about 9:30 a.m., when they began running with long delays.

Most public school systems announced delayed openings, then decided to close as roads in outlying areas proved too slick for school buses.

Allegheny Power counted more than 12,000 Maryland customers without power as trees and limbs weighed down by ice snapped power lines. The utility's Maryland service area includes parts of Carroll, Howard and Montgomery counties, and westward to Garrett County.

Altogether, more than 60,000 Allegheny customers in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia lost power.

Where rivers and streams were frozen, forecasters warned that rising water could create rapid flooding if the ice jammed behind natural and manmade barriers.

More than an inch of rain had fallen by early evening at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Combined with melting snow and ice, it drove many area streams to record levels for the date.

Gunpowder Falls had risen 4 1/2 feet at Glencoe by mid-afternoon yesterday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was flowing at 1,870 cubic feet per second, more than five times the record for the date.

The high water forced county police to close a portion of Lower Glencoe Road near York Road in Sparks for a time.

After more than an inch of rain in five hours yesterday, Carroll County reported 16 roads closed by high water, mostly in northern areas.

Streams around the Monocacy River were at flood level, and the rain was expected to continue through the night.

In Baltimore, the Department of Public Works was keeping a wary eye on the Jones Falls.

"We're monitoring it very closely in case there is any potential flooding that would cause any evacuations," said Public Works spokesman Kurt L. Kocher.

The Jones Falls rose almost 3 feet at Maryland Avenue yesterday. The flow down the urban valley increased from about 80 cubic feet per second to nearly 1,900 - well above the previous record of 91 for the date.

By late afternoon, Kocher said, the river was still 2 1/2 feet below the bottom of key bridges at Smith Avenue in Mount Washington and the Union Avenue at Meadow Mill. It appeared to have stopped rising.

City road crews back from overnight highway salting were given a few hours rest, then sent back out to help the city keep storm drains free of newly thawed trash.

"Because there was so much ice and snow on the streets, some trash could have been stuck in there and washed into the storm drains because we couldn't do street sweeping," Kocher said. "Now that it's thawed out, it might be blocking the drain."

While most people coped with too much water yesterday, 2,500 water customers in northern Anne Arundel County found their taps dry after a 2 p.m. water main break in the 800 block of Patapsco Ave. in Baltimore. Repairs were under way.

Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt, Sheridan Lyons, Mary Gail Hare, Ryan Davis and Dennis O'Brien contributed to this article.

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