Snow blankets region, at last

Vernal days give way to wintry weather, along with the usual panic


Winter's back, hon, and it's making up for lost time.

After weeks of mild weather - including temperatures in the 60s that faked out rosebushes and robins - Baltimore got its first real dose of winter yesterday, with cotton-ball-sized snowflakes falling by late afternoon and significant accumulation predicted for some areas before tapering off toward daybreak.

The storm's arrival last night capped several weeks of surprisingly springlike weather, during which many in the Baltimore region shunned heavy coats for windbreakers and noticed backyard shrubs putting out tiny buds.

The average daily temperature in January was 51, making it one of the warmest Januarys here since 1871. The last time it snowed enough to make a snowball was mid-December.

But the forces of nature cooperated yesterday to create a near-perfect nor'easter, according to forecasters and other weather buffs.

As temperatures began to drop yesterday evening, and area roads started to freeze, the snow descended in feathery dollops, just as forecasters had warned it would once two air masses - one balmy, one frigid - converged overhead.

"That is just perfect for snow development," John Darnley, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Sterling, Va., offices said of the storm that was headed up the coast and expected to gather force as it went.

Forecasters had originally predicted 8 to 14 inches of snow for Maryland - more than enough to thrill most snowboarders - though Darnley said they scaled back those numbers to 6 to 12 inches when yesterday morning produced a cold drizzle and some icy rain but not much else.

"It was too warm for snow," said Darnley, who pointed out that the high temperature at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport was 40 degrees.

But snow was starting to pile up in some places by late last night. In Owings Mills, 5 inches had fallen by about 9 p.m., and 3 inches in Gaithersburg and Glen Burnie, according to the State Highway Administration. On the Eastern Shore, only about a half-inch had accumulated by that time, and La Plata in Southern Maryland had reported only a dusting.

Having skated through most of the winter season with nary a flake, Marylanders met the threat of a snowstorm by digging out parkas, snow shovels and bags of salt. The prospect of a storm also triggered a free-for-all at area markets and home supply stores.

At a Safeway in Lower Charles Village in Baltimore, long lines of last-minute shoppers clogged the aisles.

Having braved the throngs of snow-crazed shoppers, Barbara Corely, 58, of Baltimore shook her head as she loaded a waiting taxi with her purchases.

"It's crazy," she said. "It's like, `Snow!' and everybody goes off like a stampede. `Let's all get to the market!'"

At the Home Depot in Eldersburg in Carroll County, the impending storm and a 50 percent-off sale helped clear away the entire stock of snowblowers.

"We still have shovels and salt, but the threat of snow helped us sell out of snowblowers by Friday night," said Tim Pitta, store manager. "We sold about 40 of them at costs ranging from $200 to $1,000."

Such reactions - or overreactions - gave patrons at Harry's Main Street Grille in Westminster a good laugh. Instead of heading out to Lowe's or Super Fresh, they were knocking back pints of lager and mugs of Irish coffee.

"People are talking about the weather in jest," said bar owner Harry Sirinakis. "When somebody talks about it, they look up and turn their noses up and say, `This is ridiculous!'"

Still, others were getting paid - some of them overtime - to take the storm seriously.

Baltimore's emergency operations center opened at 9 a.m., when about 150 trucks took to the streets to begin salting and clearing roadways. By 4 p.m., the trucks had sprinkled about 1,300 tons of salt across hundreds of miles of asphalt, according to Mayor Martin O'Malley, who held an afternoon news conference to discuss storm preparations.

O'Malley said that the city still had about 17,000 tons of salt available and that the $3 million snow removal budget had barely been touched. City officials said they were saving 2,000 tons of blue salt for later. The blue salt is hard to miss, and city officials want to make sure residents know their streets are being treated against ice buildup.

Also in use to guard against complaints is a new SnowTrak mapping system that tracks the number of times snowplows have cleared a street.

Statewide, 12 of 23 counties, stretching from the west to the northeast, had declared snow emergencies by nightfall.

State highway officials were gearing up for snow removal, with 1,450 pieces of equipment and 1,150 employees at the ready.

James Ports, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, was in the state operations center in Hanover, with access to 68 cameras giving him views of roads around the state. He was also getting information from 75 road sensors, which measure temperature and salinity.

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