Snowed out

State digging out after being hit by up to 3 feet of accumulation

I-95 stifled, BWI paralyzed, tens of thousands without power

February 07, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Jacques Kelly | Baltimore Sun reporters

Marylanders hunkered down for the most part Saturday and began what could be days of digging out as a possibly record winter storm dumped 2 to 3 feet of snow across the state.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said travel would remain difficult "for the next couple of days" and that he would wait until this afternoon to decide whether to open state government on Monday.

Frigid weather promised to delay melting, and forecasters were watching a new system that could bring more snow Tuesday.

Craig Maheu of Ellicott City had cleared his driveway by 3 p.m. with a snowblower but could only stare in awe at the thigh-high wall of snow clogging his street.

"I've never seen it like this," said Maheu, who remembers 2- and 3-foot drifts from the lake-effect snows of his youth in Ohio. He said this storm rivaled the worst of the Midwest.

President Barack Obama, used to the harsh winters of Chicago, jokingly called it "a blizzard - Snowmaggedon." But labeling it a blizzard was, at best, premature, according to the National Weather Service, which has yet to decide whether the storm met the definition.

It was, in any case, an event of epic proportions for Marylanders, posing herculean challenges for emergency responders and road crews trying to cope with blizzard-like conditions.

Snow fell and blew for more than 24 hours, smothering a six-state region from Ohio to New Jersey with a wet, white blanket at least a foot deep.

Traffic, barely moving as it was, stopped altogether on Interstate 95 south of Baltimore, stranding hundreds of motorists for hours.

Power was knocked out to hundreds of thousands of households, including nearly 180,000 across Maryland, as high winds and heavy, wet snow split trees, caved in weak roofs and made travel treacherous.

Across the state, elected leaders from the governor on down appealed to residents to stay indoors and off roads and highways, which plows were laboring to keep open.

"We've been fighting all day simply to clear one lane on major highways," O'Malley said. The State Highway Administration fielded 2,500 salt trucks and plows to clear highways, and the Maryland National Guard deployed 400 personnel and more than 100 Humvees across the state to help respond to calls for assistance.

By midday, the storm had dropped 38 inches at Elkridge, the highest unofficial total in the state at that point. Howard County Executive Ken Ulman described it as "the epicenter" of the storm in his jurisdiction, if not the entire state.

"It is so bad that chains are breaking on tires," Ulman said. He said it "would be a while" before county plows made it into cul-de-sacs and small streets.

Staying home was no comfort for those who had no electricity or heat. More than 84,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers lost power, and more than 30,000 were still in the dark late Saturday. About 94,000 Maryland households in the Washington suburbs were without electricity.

In the city, 120 trucks labored to clear main thoroughfares, while new Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake appealed to Baltimoreans to resist the urge to drive. Snow collapsed part of a church roof and an abandoned building, but no injuries were reported.

"I cannot stress this enough: Stay off the streets," she said. "Unless you absolutely must drive - and only if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle - stay off the roads. EMS, fire and police units, as well as our plows, cannot do their job if abandoned cars are blocking intersections and major byways."

Snow removal was straining budgets, supplies and endurance.

Baltimore's Transportation Department had spread 10,859 pounds of salt on city streets by early Saturday afternoon, with 7,180 pounds remaining, said Ryan O'Doherty, the mayor's spokesman. The city has spent $407,823 to date on storm response.

Baltimore County had 380 salt trucks and plows plying suburban and rural roads all day, but roads chief Tim Burgess said it could be days before residential streets are cleared.

"Hopefully, by [this] morning we'll have all the main roads opened up," Burgess said. "Won't say in perfect shape, but passable. The secondary streets, it's going to take some time."

While plows and salt trucks were able to clear highways and many roads soon after the late-December storm, Burgess said this one was impossible to keep up with because it was more intense, with snow accumulating at the rate of 2 to 3 inches per hour at one point.

In Annapolis, vehicles were prohibited on city streets, according to a state of emergency declared by Mayor Joshua J. Cohen. Only snow equipment, emergency vehicles or others authorized by him were allowed. His spokesman, Phill McGowan, said the prohibition applied to newspaper delivery trucks and vehicles taking employees to work.

"Public safety is the first consideration," McGowan said, adding that it might be three to four days before plows can open smaller streets in Annapolis.

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