Maryland braces for ice storm

Freezing rain could persist into Wednesday

February 01, 2011|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

Marylanders still brushing off from last week's snowstorm, rush-hour chaos and power outages, were bracing for another winter blow Tuesday, this time a two-part ice storm that was set to begin overnight.

Widespread icing of more than a quarter-inch is possible north and west of Baltimore before the storm ends Wednesday morning, forecasters said. As much as a half-inch of ice is possible along the Pennsylvania border.

"When you get into the half-inch range you start to see a lot of significant damage. But a quarter-inch … can certainly bring down power lines, small branches and limbs, given the right conditions," said Matthew Kramar, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service forecast office in Sterling, Va.

On the streets and sidewalks, he said, "even a trace can cause problems. … It's a situation that needs monitoring. If ice becomes more of a certainty, stay off the roads, stay inside until conditions improve."

Some businesses in the region took note of the forecast and prepared for the worst.

On Monday, Giant Food ramped up its deliveries to stores, especially on staples such as bread and milk, said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for the supermarket chain. The stores plan to stay open regular hours.

Ed Nevin, office managing partner for the Deloitte's accounting firm in Baltimore, said his employees were reminded Monday to take their laptops home.

"We have a lot of people who can work virtually and stay connected as long as they have the Internet," Nevin said.

At the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Robert Rowan, associate vice president for facilities and operations, wakes at 4:30 a.m. whenever there's a prediction of bad weather. He looks at the newest forecasts and checks in with campus police and snow crews about the condition of sidewalks and parking lots. Whether the university closes, opens late or ends the day early is ultimately up to the university's president. "It's a subjective judgment," Rowan said. "Some days we're right; some days we blow it."

"As long as mass transit is running, even if it's snowy or icy, we can get people in or out," he said. "We're probably one of the last campuses to close, and one of the first to open."

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., fresh from repairing line breaks that caused more than 230,000 outages during last week's storm, put in a request Monday for several hundred out-of-state linemen in anticipation of more outages from the new storm.

"We made the request. We hope we don't need them," said BGE spokesman Rob Gould.

The National Weather Service posted a winter weather advisory from midnight to noon Tuesday, calling for a few hundredths of an inch of ice overnight across northern Maryland, plus the Washington and Baltimore suburbs — enough to tangle the Tuesday morning commute.

Overnight temperatures were expected to drop into the 20s. Baltimore health officials declared a Code Blue alert overnight, extending shelter hours and sending outreach workers to check on vulnerable residents.

With heavier doses of freezing rain due Tuesday night into Wednesday, a winter storm watch is in effect for the region through noon Wednesday. That one calls for a quarter-inch of new ice overnight.

"Ice is bad for anybody, no matter what kind of car you have. A four-wheel-drive, even Humvees, are no good on ice," said Valerie Burnette Edgar, spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration.

Highway crews were busy Sunday and Monday laying down salt brine along Maryland interstates and major state roads in anticipation of the ice storm.

"That gets on there and dries, and gives us a little bit of an edge," Edgar said. "Hopefully, it will keep the ice from bonding."

A period of rain before last Wednesday's storm prevented the SHA from pretreating the highways, and that contributed to the very slick conditions that developed during the morning rush hour.

The second round of heavier precipitation in the late afternoon also saw a period of rain, which washed off any residual salt. Combined with low surface temperatures, that allowed the sleet that followed to stick and form a slippery base for the snow that came later, snarling the evening commute.

Salt trucks were being loaded Monday for use once the snow, sleet and freezing rain begin falling.

But if the roads are in poor shape by the time the morning commute begins, Edgar said, "hopefully people will make the wise choice and not go out in an icy storm. It can take a couple of hours to get things in good condition."

The storm is part of a larger system crossing the Plains and the southern Great Lakes states this week, bringing heavy snow and some blizzard conditions to the region.

Last week's storm was the single most destructive storm in BGE's history. With assistance from contractors and other utilities, all the outages were repaired within 72 hours, the company said.

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