A dangerous storm

Blizzard warnings posted, BWI cancels most flights and Marylanders urged to stay home, as forecasters call for accumulations of 2 to 3 feet of snow

February 06, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance | Baltimore Sun reporter

Maryland is under a state of emergency today as a winter storm forecasters described as "extremely dangerous" spread across the area with potentially record-breaking snow totals and gale-force winds.

Accumulation rates as high as 2 to 3 inches per hour were expected to bury parts of the region in nearly 2 feet of snow by daybreak today. If forecasters are right, another 5 to 9 inches could fall before the precipitation ends tonight, with total accumulations of 20 to 30 inches or more predicted.

Blizzard warnings were posted through 10 p.m. today for the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, from Anne Arundel south to St. Mary's County, where falling snow and winds of more than 35 mph early today were expected to reduce visibility to less than a quarter-mile before easing later in the morning. The weather service added southern Baltimore, Harford, Charles and Prince George's counties, plus Baltimore City andthe District of Columbia, to the blizzard warnings Friday night.

"This extremely dangerous storm is expected to produce record snowfall for the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas," the National Weather Service said. "Travel conditions ... will be extremely hazardous and life-threatening. Help your state and local government first responders and transportation agencies by staying off the roads."

Before the first flake stuck Friday, schools across the state had closed or sent students home early. Many employers let workers telecommute or punch out early. Airlines canceled flights in and out of Baltimore, and Marylanders everywhere stocked up on food, shovels, beer and other essentials in anticipation of a long Super Bowl weekend at home in deep snow.

All day long, forecasts from the National Weather Service and other sources escalated from the 1- to 2-foot range into 2- to 3-foot territory. Such totals would threaten all-time snow records in Washington and Baltimore.

Baltimore's biggest snowstorm to date is the 28.2 inches that fell Feb. 15-18, 2003. Washington's is the 28-inch "Knickerbocker Storm" of 1922. The storm was named for a Washington theater in which 98 people perished when the roof collapsed under the weight of snow.

What was stacking up to be a historic winter storm originated in the North Pacific, crossed the continent and picked up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Overnight, it was expected to "bomb out," or intensify, off the North Carolina coast and throw the equivalent of several inches of rain on the Mid-Atlantic states.

Bands of intense snowfall were expected to drop 2 to 3 inches per hour in some places.

None of that was apparent during daylight hours Friday.

Light snow began to fall late in the morning. It arrived first in the Washington area, gradually spreading over Baltimore by 11 a.m., and later the Eastern Shore and points north.

With surface temperatures above freezing, little was sticking at first. Some Marylanders were quick to pronounce the much-ballyhooed storm a bust.

"Count me in the 'dud' camp," said Bryan Grimaldi, in a comment to The Baltimore Sun's online WeatherBlog. "It's been snowing for several hours in Elkridge, not a single flake is on the ground; it's all melting. My prediction: 2 to 6 inches of slush tonight after dark, then done."

But meteorologists and government officials noted that the snow was sticking to the south, with 2 inches on the ground near Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia by midafternoon. Temperatures would eventually drop, they promised, snow rates would increase, and water on the ground would freeze and be covered by snow as the storm intensified.

Friday night into this morning "will be about as dangerous as winter weather can get around here," said Chris Strong, the National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist for the area.

A liberal leave policy was invoked for state workers, giving them the option to head home early to avoid getting snared in a slippery evening rush hour.

Many commuters did leave work early. Traffic volume on the Beltway swelled soon after 1 p.m. But the pavement was no more than wet late into the afternoon, and highway speeds appeared normal.

Gov. Martin O'Malley joined the chorus urging Marylanders to "curl up with a book and stay off the roads," so highway crews could do their job.

"It's going to be a big snow," the governor told reporters at the state highway operations center in Hanover. "We are prepared to deal with whatever Mother Nature throws at us."

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency ordered Level 3 staffing at its State Emergency Operations Center in Reisterstown, the second-highest alert level for the agency. It means about 20 MEMA employees are joined at the operations center by representatives from a dozen state agencies to coordinate storm responses by state and local law enforcement, health, medical and transportation services.

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