Stern O'Malley defends storm response, warns roads will remain 'perilous'

Second storm in 5 days raises area's seasonal snowfall to record 79 inches

February 11, 2010|By Michael Dresser and Frank Roylance | Baltimore Sun reporters

Gov. Martin O'Malley delivered a blunt message to Marylanders after the second major storm within five days dumped more than 20 inches of snow on parts of the Baltimore region: Don't expect a return to normal life for days.

Maryland roads will continue to be "perilous" through today, he said. And in a briefing at the state emergency response center, he defended local governments that have been besieged by complaints about unplowed or partially cleared streets - while seeming to speak directly to those who have been griping.

"Stop already with the 'Scrape my street down to the pavement.' That cannot happen for the next 72 hours," he said.

Today was shaping up as yet another day defined by closings and cancellations. All area public schools are closed, as are federal, state and local government offices. The General Assembly will run on an abbreviated schedule.

The latest storm vaulted the winter of 2009-2010 into the record books as the snowiest on record in Maryland -- with about 79 inches having fallen, beating the old record of 62.5 inches, set in 1995-1996.

The region was paralyzed by heavy snow and high winds Wednesday - winds topped 58 mph over part of the Chesapeake Bay, and 40-mph gusts were common across the region as the storm's center deepened and drifted slowly along the Mid-Atlantic coast, forecasters said. For hours, the storm stalled over Maryland, and on the weather map its contours seemed to mold themselves to the state's southern border as it follows the course of the Potomac.

The howling winds, swirling snow and plummeting visibility that drove plow drivers off the highways at times were driven by an intensifying offshore low-pressure system that meteorologists likened to a hurricane.

"They have hurricane-force wind warnings up for that sector of the ocean, so for all intents and purposes, it's a ... Category 1 hurricane," said meteorologist Bryan Jackson at the National Weather Service's forecast office in Sterling, Va.

Asked to compare this storm with the 24.8-inch blizzard on Friday and Saturday, Jackson said the weekend storm carried more moisture. "That's why places will hit 2 feet [of snow] with this one, where they were getting 2 1/2 to close to 3 feet" over the weekend.

But "this one was certainly windier," he said, adding, "These are the most hazardous conditions of the winter, and it's been a very hazardous winter."

Conditions were hazardous enough that about midday, Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake put Phase III of the city's snow emergency plan into effect - ordering all nonemergency vehicles off the roads. That order was scheduled to expire at 5 a.m. today.

The Maryland Transit Administration began Wednesday trying to keep local bus, light rail and Metro subway service running. But by noon, the MTA had suspended everything but service on the underground part of the Metro from Mondawmin Mall to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Late Wednesday, there was no word when service to buses, light rail and aboveground Metro might resume, but today's MARC service and commuter buses were canceled.

Baltimore- Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport was snowed in most of the day, and no commercial flights took off or landed. But one runway was cleared in late afternoon, and one UPS cargo flight took off. State Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley said it would be up to the airlines when to resume flights, but she noted that few planes were at BWI because the airlines flew them out before the storm. The airport's largest carriers - Southwest and AirTran - planned to operate on reduced schedules.

O'Malley said state and local officials were concentrating their efforts on making one or two lanes on roads passable so that Humvees and ambulances can deal with emergencies. But, he added, in many cases, the best road crews can do is tamp down the snow into hard packs that can be navigated only slowly.

Keeping those roads open was a struggle overnight because the one-two punch of the storms, combined with the kick of high winds, pushed the snow into drifts that spilled back onto recently plowed roadways. State highway officials said Wednesday's conditions were even more difficult than those during the height of the weekend storm.

Through most of Wednesday, traffic was light as most Marylanders heeded warnings to stay off the highways - earning O'Malley's thanks for clearing the way for snowplows. But those who did venture out became involved in an estimated 700 crashes by late afternoon.

In one of them, two tractor-trailers jackknifed about 2 p.m. on southbound Interstate 95 in Prince George's County - triggering a series of collisions involving two more trucks and six passenger vehicles. There were no serious injuries, but the mess took more than three hours to remove as traffic was detoured onto parallel routes.

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