Wet, heavy snow demands caution, governor says

O'Malley predicts tens of thousands could lose power

February 05, 2010|By Michael Dresser | Baltimore Sun reporter

Gov. Martin O'Malley said Marylanders will wake this morning to the most impassable streets since the 27-inch-deep snowstorm of 2003 -- and, if they have power, will learn that perhaps 100,000 households have not been as lucky.

In a late afternoon news conference at the State Highway Administration operations center in Hanover, the governor said the overnight snowstorm was expected to be much heavier and wetter than the December snowstorm that dumped 20-22 inches of fluffy powder on the region. Such heavy snow is likely to bring down many tree branches, cutting power to homes around the state, officials said.

"This one will be a much more stubborn snow," O'Malley said, urging citizens to have patience with state and local officials after a snowfall that forecasters said would reach 20-30 inches.

Saturday "will be a day when everyone's digging out -- and into Sunday for that matter," he said. Among those digging out will be Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Most flights were canceled after mid-afternoon and the airport is expected to be closed to flights until Sunday.

Officials urged motorists to stay off the roads Saturday unless it is absolutely necessary to go out. They asked drivers who do venture out to take it slow, use special care at highway interchanges and give snow plows a wide berth.

"Never pass a snowplow or a snowplow train," said state Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen, using the term for a convoy working to clear several lanes.

There were few serious incidents to impede the traffic flow Friday. An exception was a collision in which a vehicle carrying two adults and three children hit the back of a salt truck on the shoulder of I-95 at Route 462 in Harford County. Officials said an adult and a child were critically injured.

Earlier Friday, O'Malley declared a state of emergency that cleared the way for the Maryland National Guard to offer assistance -- and the use of their Humvees -- to local first responders.

The declaration could also clear the way for Maryland to receive federal aid if it meets the threshold of 28 inches of snowfall. Such aid could help state and local governments cope with the budget-busting effects of the most snowy winter in recent memory -- one that was expected to put the state well above the $60 million allocated for snow removal in the current budget year.

"We hope our federal partners measure in a snowdrift," O'Malley said.

Most commuters avoided the worst of the storm by leaving work en masse at midday -- encouraged by liberal leave policies adopted by the state and federal governments and many companies. O'Malley said the biggest surge in homebound traffic occurred between noon and 2 p.m., and most roads appeared to be lightly traveled by the time the snow intensified and visibility waned in late afternoon.

Transit riders joined the early exodus as MARC trains and Maryland Transit Administration commuter buses left early Friday afternoon in an attempt to get commuters home before the worst of the storm. State Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley said both MARC and the commuter buses performed well.

Lindsay Griswold of Hanover caught a 1:20 p.m. Penn Line train out of Washington rather than her usual 5:20 p.m. departure after her employer, a federal contractor, let workers go home early. She said the crush of riders as she passed through Union Station was the worst she had seen.

"Going through the gate was unbelievable. They just packed us in," she said as she waited for her husband to pick her up at the BWI station.

The MTA planned to run local buses as long as possible but Swaim-Staley said it might discontinue operations earlier than it did during December's major snowstorm, when some buses got stuck and had to be towed. She said some buses will run on primary routes only, requiring some passengers to walk farther to catch a bus.

MTA officials also planned to run unoccupied "snow trains" through the night to keep tracks cleared on the subway and light rail lines. But the Washington Metro was expected to suspend operations once the snow exceeded 6-8 inches.

Private bus companies also were affected by the storm. Megabus canceled service to New York from White Marsh Friday afternoon through early Sunday morning. BoltBus halted service between New York and Baltimore as of Friday evening, and Greyhound canceled routes from Baltimore to New York as well as Ocean City.

BWI's biggest airline, Southwest, canceled more than 200 flights Friday and Saturday in preparation for the storm, forcing ticket holders to improvise. Southwest, like most other airlines, won't start flying again until Sunday.

Southwest called Rose Maldonado Thursday to give her that news. She immediately got on the phone to rebook her 2:50 p.m. flight home to San Antonio. After 45 minutes on hold, she secured a 10 a.m. flight. To be sure nothing else would go wrong, she got to the airport four hours early.

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