Snow's better than forecast

February 26, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz and Greg Garland | Julie Bykowicz and Greg Garland,Sun reporters

Snow, in manageable amounts, is the more innocent of the frozen troublemakers of winter - and what better day than a Sunday to have it.

Particularly when the alternative of more ice than snow had been predicted.

In contrast to the icy coating left by the Valentine's Day storm - a reprise of which weather forecasters had feared - yesterday's storm spread a less dangerous white blanket, but the possibility remained for slippery conditions before temperatures rise above freezing today.

The unexpected snowfall accounted for the highest accumulations of the season: 5.3 inches in Columbia, 4.3 inches at BWI Marshall Airport, more than 3 inches in downtown Baltimore, 2.5 inches in Towson and Bel Air, and 2 inches in Carroll County, according to the National Weather Service.

But by last night, there were no major accidents reported, few airport delays here, and unlike the last wintry go-round, hardly a zap to power customers. It was all pretty much good news that officials attributed to the appearance of snow rather than ice.

"Snow is the lesser of two evils," said state police Sgt. Tracy Hart of the Golden Ring barracks, which patrols much of the Beltway. "In snow, a motorist can slow down with control. On an icy road, a motorist can brake carefully, but often the vehicle spins out of control."

Ice, or a treacherous slush of melted and refrozen snow on the roads, was just what officials were fearing overnight.

The regional National Weather Service office in Sterling, Va., left an advisory in effect until 4 a.m. today, warning of "periods of light freezing rain until well after midnight. ... With temperatures at or below freezing, icy patches should continue into the morning commute."

Forecasts called for about one-tenth of an inch of precipitation overnight, said Calvin Meadows, a weather service meteorological technician, "but any amount is enough to cause problems."

Valerie Burnette Edgar, a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration, said that even though snow is generally less dangerous than ice, "motorists don't want to act like there's nothing happening."

She said commuters should allow extra travel time.

But last night, officials said Marylanders could have been waking up to far worse winter weather this morning.

As recently as Saturday, forecasters had been bracing for a Sunday storm similar to the one Feb. 14, when ice crusted over a light snowfall, making for deadly conditions. It wasn't the 1.3 inches of snow that was the problem but the half-inch of ice that followed.

Two sledders died, and area hospitals treated many serious injuries from falls and sledding accidents.

"A timing issue" saved Marylanders yesterday, Meadows said.

He said forecasts were off because the band of upper-atmosphere warm air that would have produced raindrops - which would freeze as they fell - arrived later in the day than expected, meaning that the precipitation took the form of snow.

David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration, said the forecast "changed pretty dramatically" yesterday morning - with significantly more snowfall than expected.

"What was supposed to be a slight snow event has turned into a reasonably significant snow event," he said.

Road crews had expected a small amount of snow in most areas of Maryland, followed by sleet or freezing rain, which would have required more salting of roads than plowing.

"Now they are doing as much plowing as salting," Buck said yesterday afternoon.

Edgar said SHA crews were happy to switch from salting to plowing because "snow is so much easier to deal with."

At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, bad weather in other parts of the country was the culprit for the few canceled flights yesterday, saidspokesman, Jonathan Dean. The weather had "minimal operational impact," he said.

Linda Foy, a BGE spokeswoman, said the storm was a factor in power outages to 7,400 customers yesterday - a tiny fraction of the 150,000 who were affected during the Feb. 14 storm. About 2,000 customers were without power at 11:30 last night, most of them north of Baltimore.

She said ice can cause three times the problems that snow does for utility crews: Because of its greater weight, ice typically snaps more power lines and downs more trees and limbs. And icy roads are more difficult for crews to navigate.

Last night, area police reported numerous snow-related vehicle accidents, but none that resulted in serious injury or death.

Most of the accidents involved property damage, the result of drivers losing control on slick roads and spinning out, often hitting other vehicles or stationary objects, police said.

Some accidents resulted in police detouring vehicles onto secondary streets that had not been plowed or salted, causing backups and some delays.

Police said those problems could extend into early morning - when school officials usually check conditions and decide whether their systems will open on time, if at all. No school system closings in the area had been announced by late last night.

Sun reporter Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

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