Maryland struggles with record December storm

December 20, 2009|By Justin Fenton | justin.fenton@baltsun.com

A ferocious storm walloped Maryland on the last weekend before Christmas, shutting down shopping malls and airports, clogging roads and keeping most people hunkered in their homes to wait out the unusual pre-holiday snow.

The weather system, which the National Weather Service said broke a record for a December storm in this area, dumped as much as 18 to 20 inches in some areas as Gov. Martin O'Malley declared a state of emergency and deployed the National Guard.

It punished retailers and procrastinating holiday shoppers on one of the year's busiest shopping days, and for a time put the Ravens' afternoon contest today in doubt when the Chicago Bears' initial flight into BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport was delayed.

Marylanders awoke Saturday morning to snow piling up at a rate of as much as 2 to 3 inches an hour, propelled by heavy winds that blew flakes sideways and made it difficult to keep roads clear. As of dinnertime Saturday, most areas had seen totals approaching nearly 2 feet.

"The snow is falling so quickly, it's impossible for crews to stay ahead of it," O'Malley said.

State Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley said that 2,400 workers and 2,300 pieces of equipment were clearing roads starting at 10 p.m. Friday.

Though no serious injuries were reported on the major arteries, secondary roads were littered with vehicles that had lost control in the snowy, icy conditions. Exit ramps were said to be particularly treacherous.

"If there are roads, there's a car crushed up on it," said Anne Arundel County police officer Jeremy Serio. Asked if any roads in the county had been closed, Serio said: "I wish they all were."

Dozens of flights at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport were grounded before officials halted all flights in the early afternoon to clear runways. An Air Jamaica flight twice got stuck on the runway, holding its passengers hostage for more than six hours and prompting at least one of them to call police. One Chicago Bears' flight out of Illinois was also scratched, though the team boarded a flight later that was scheduled to arrive in Baltimore late Saturday night.

Workers at M&T Bank Stadium cleared snow all day, and Ravens vice president of operations Bob Eller said the venue would be ready for today's kickoff, which had already been pushed back to 4:15 p.m. in anticipation of the snowstorm. The team had 700 workers at the stadium beginning Friday so they would be available to help clear the area, as well as 125 inmates and supervisors from the state Department of Corrections.

More than 1,000 homes in Baltimore County, 500 in Anne Arundel County and 100 in Harford County were without power at various points throughout the day, according to Baltimore Gas and Electric, with officials attributing many of the outages to motorists slamming into utility poles.

Unrelated to the storm, about 400 customers in Baltimore were without service because of a problem with an underground cable, with the weather hindering efforts to repair the damage.

Malls and shopping centers that should have been packed with shoppers buying last-minute holiday gifts on what is usually one of the busiest days of the season were nearly empty in the morning, then locked at midday.

Stores were reporting sales of sleds, snow boots and food to help weather the storm, instead of gadgets, clothes and jewelry for under the tree.

Most large shopping centers were closed altogether by early afternoon. At White Marsh, a handwritten sign on the door of Trade Secret read: "Closed because of the blizzard of 2009," and had a hand-drawn snowman underneath the lettering.

"We're all nauseous," said Debbie Stoll, owner of Kiss N' Make-up, a shop that sells cosmetics and gifts in Hampden. She opened later than usual, at 11:30 a.m., and after three hours had rung up just four sales - barely 10 percent of what she would have expected in good weather.

"These two days could have at least made a bad year a little bit better," she said, referring to Saturday and today. "It's just really bad timing. Had it been any other year, where business had been on par, it would kind of put people in the spirit."

While only the bravest were willing to face the snowy weather, some had no choice but to keep to their plans. Funeral homes reported few cancellations, and a funeral procession worked its way to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens at midday.

In Hampden, Christmas shoppers Andy Henning and Anna Schneider walked down the middle of snow-covered 36th Street, squinting through the driving flakes for "open" signs.

Only about half the stores they passed were open, said Henning, a visiting scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, but the couple managed to find Baltimore postcards, a decorative spoon and a T-shirt for relatives in their native Germany.

Given the circumstances, Henning said, "We've done quite OK."

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