Wednesday, February 10

Live Blogging Washington's Blizzard (Last updated 5:45 PM)

UPDATE 5:45 PM Eastern Time
From 12 minutes ago via Drudge Report, AP has a summary of news about this wide-ranging storm, which is raging up the east coast. Pennsylvania is getting hit hard. See also Record snow paralyzes Philadelphia via Drudge (H/T RBO) -- and thanks to RBO for crossposting this entry. Also, for anyone who's wondering about using snowmobiles: from a news report a few minutes ago, they're getting stuck in the snow drifts, too.

After I logged back on again I exchanged emails with correspondents about the blizzard: I'm adding here what I wrote, as an update:

The situation is now turning grim. There were entire blocks of families stuck in Virginia and Maryland with no electricity before this storm hit -- the ones who didn't get their electricity back on after the Fri-Sat storm knocked it out because the utility couldn't get into the neighborhoods.

These families and the crews, some of which came from the Carolinas and even Texas to help the utilities in this region during the crisis, didn't know until it was too late about the strategy that the local governments decided on to leave the secondary roads unplowed until Tuesday evening and Wednesday.

So now they're facing maybe another week without heat in sub-freezing weather, with drifts of 3 feet of hard packed snow outside the door, their side street impassable so that even an emergency vehicle can't get through to take them to a warming center. Even those families with fireplaces that had firewood stacked up are now running out.

Nothing like this series of storms has ever happened in the District -- not in recorded history, and certainly not in this very fragile modern era. In the 1700s and 1800s, people in this region chopped enough wood and put up enough preserved food to get through an entire winter if they were snowed in. Today, we have become so dependent on our modern systems that urban dwellers and even suburbanites are very vulnerable, particularly in a region that usually doesn't see much snow and isn't set up to handle it.

So it's been a slowly unwinding crisis. As I observed in my first post on the blizzard, it all started out with almost a holiday atmosphere. People heard the news that The Big One would arrive on Friday, got to the stores on Wednesday and Thursday and filled on up gas, and so on.

But on Wednesday and Thursday they didn't know a historic blizzard would be hitting the region on top of the historic snow levels dumped on Friday and Saturday. Now many people are beginning to realize they're in trouble -- and with another storm on the horizon.

No small part of the trouble is people who can't get to work but are in such bad financial straits they can't afford to miss a paycheck. And for unemployed people who need to get to food banks and day shelters -- they're going to have to go without food.

As for the housebound -- elderly, ill, handicapped who depend on Meals on Wheels and similar programs for their daily meals -- they're out of luck too if the program can't scare up enough SUVs and/or the SUVs get stuck.

This just in from Twitter: Fraternity at George Washington University evacuated, closed after #snow buildup threatens to collapse roof.
9:45 AM Eastern Time
The wind is blowing the snow around so much it's going to be hard to get an accurate total count for this storm. But a meteorologist said a few minutes ago that today's storm, coming on top of the others this winter, guarantees this is the worst winter for snow in Washington, DC since snow records have been kept.

Washington, DC's Mayor Adrian Fenty has contacted the mayor of Buffalo, New York (one of the nation's blizzard capitals) for advice on how to handle a snowstorm of this magnitude.

Yesterday I wrote that on Fri-Sat we had our "very own blizzard" but technically it wasn't a blizzard, only close to it. A blizzard is 35+ winds and visibility at less a quarter mile. Today we're having a technical blizzard in the Greater Washington, DC area (The District plus parts of Virginia, Maryland).

Manassas, VA has clocked wind gusts of 60 mph; for the last 90 minutes or so the District was seeing winds of up to 40 mph and visibility ranging from quarter mile to bursts of whiteout. We're in sort of a trough right now, as one band of the storm moves out, but the winds will pick up again later.

On the weekend WUSA-9 (local CBS affiliate TV station) was sending petite female anchors around the city to report. This morning they were replaced by big strapping guys, but one of them had anchor himself in a snowdrift to keep standing in the wind gusts.

There was one female TV reporter around this morning. She must work out at the gym. She picked up a huge block of ice from the road to show to her cameraman and said to the TV audience, "This is what's blowing onto the roads. STAY HOME. DON'T DRIVE UNLESS YOU ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO."

That's been the message of the morning from officialdom, as well.

That block of ice was from the Fri-Sat 20+ inch snowfall on Fri-Sat; that was heavy, wet snow. Then, since Sat., it melted a bit then refroze. Now the wind is turning chunks of those ice blocks into missiles.

10:15 AM
Montgomery County just announced they were pulling all their snow plows off the road; conditions are just too dangerous for the plow operators. There are a lot of spin-outs on the roads. Pepco utility also made the same decision -- although some of the crews might still be out.

PGE (Prince George's County, MD) still has their operators on the roads -- they're just learning about the Montgomery County decision. 10:26 AM they're telling WUSA they will make a decision in the next few minutes. 10:38 -- I think they reported they were also pulling their crews.

The District has also pulled their snow plow operators.

VDOT (Virginia Dept. Transportation) told WUSA at 10:20 they're keeping their snow plow crews on the road and telling them to just pull over and wait out the whiteouts.

Pepco, which also services parts of Maryland, did a great job on Saturday of restoring power outages in the District. On Saturday at noon Mayor Fenty announced there were 6,000 outages in the District and an hour later there was a report of 10,000 out. But by 10 PM the Washington Post was reporting the total down to 1,500 or maybe it was 1,700, and by yesterday all the outrages from the Fri-Sat storm were repaired.

Pepco was like a marauding army. They were working in coordination with snow plow operators to clear a road; they'd pull a tree or branch off the downed wires, then get the wires repaired presto. But they were just dealing with heavy snow at that time, without much wind.

So, now, with Pepco crews off the road, as the outages occur during this storm there's going to be a big backlog.

Montgomery, MD and Fairfax, VA counties, which were hit hardest with power outages during the Fri-Sat storm, went into this one with tens of thousands of outages still not repaired. Now those residents will be lucky to see the outages repaired by the end of next week.

Just to give you an idea of temperatures those residents without heat are dealing with, right now it's 25 degrees in the District without factoring in wind chill. The temperatures will go down to the single digits overnight for some of those areas.

No word yet from Virginia Dominion Power as to whether they're pulled their repair crews.

Metro has pulled all their bus drivers -- I don't think they even went out this morning -- but they're keeping them on stand-by so they can draw a paycheck.

This is the big problem: as the snow days get used up, even people who have a steady job are having to look at maybe the rest of the week without drawing pay. That's why there are people getting to work on foot right now, even in the blizzard, even if they aren't essential employees. These are the people who are already on the edge financially. They have no choice but to get to work.

Metro told WUSA an hour ago they've been keeping their underground trains running -- all above-ground stations are closed. They're keeping the trains running today until midnight and having their crews keep escalators, entrances, cleared of snow.

Uh oh. WUSA just announced that Metro is having to pull some of their crews -- I guess from plowing the parking lots at the Metro stations.

Will Round Two of the Great Snowball Fight take place in Dupont Circle today? Those people are crazy; of course they'll be there. Same time as for the Sat. snowball war:2:00 PM, if you're in the neighborhood and you're crazy.

At least this time the Dupont Circle Starbucks is open. Dupont Circle residents were going out in skis and snowshoes on Saturday to get their caffeine fix at Starbucks. The TV anchor who was stationed there was intoning at them, like Poe's Raven, "It's closed."

Starbucks customers. A breed unto themselves.

Sometimes she'd relent and call after them, "But the 24 hour CVS is open." The hardcore Starbucks drinkers had probably wiped out the CVS supply of bottled Starbucks drinks the night before.

Yet the Silver Diner in Tyson's Corner opened at 8 AM on Saturday and they were open on Friday until 9:00 PM. The staff there probably camped out. They were giving 25 percent discounts to first responders and snowplow operators who ate there on Friday night and Saturday morning. So they were getting their parking lot cleared as the snow fell.

However, the Silver Diner started running into the same problem that was occurring everywhere in the region on Saturday: where do you put the plowed snow? There was so much of the stuff falling so quickly that as soon as the plow operators turned around there was another pile to plow. Pretty soon, it was a few valleys of plowed pavement between mountains of snow piles.

The District is going to have to truck much of the plowed snow out, there's so much of it.

Even on the interstates feeding into this region there was only one lane open despite the good job that the snow plow operators did. The rest was reserved for the snow mountains. That was on Saturday. Now, with many snow plow crews off the roads, they're going to have to start almost from scratch once the winds die down.

As for the people living on secondary roads, there's been some controversy about the region-wide strategy of leaving those roads unplowed until Tuesday and Wednesday, in order to focus on the primary roads. That strategy was devised when today's storm was being described by meteorologists as "a few snowflakes" and a "nuisance storm."

On Sunday there was one homeowner in PG county who was fit to be tied. She was standing on a main road, gesturing at her side street and yelling at plow trucks, "When are you going to plow here?"

She told the TV reporter, "I've seen forty plows go by. What am I paying taxes for?"

They'll get dug out sometime before the Spring.

At 8 AM this morning the District's fire chief, Dennis Rubin, told WUSA that as of that time, there were 20 roof collapses from snow piled up on the roof. He said the fire department had added an extra shift and doubled up on the firefighters. Normally they deal with about 400 calls per day. The emergency calls were up to 900 today -- many of those snow related emergencies; people getting heart attacks from shoveling snow, slip and fall accidents, women giving birth inside the house because they couldn't get to the hospital, and so on.

Yes, all the TV stations have repeatedly warned to be careful about shoveling snow and they explained in great detail the exact dangers. But a lot of people don't take the warnings seriously enough. They overestimate what they're capable of doing, then they get chest pains. Today's snow flakes, although falling heavily, are light and dry. But the heavy, wet snow that fell on Sat. can be a killer to shovel unless you pace yourself very carefully.

Even the big fire trucks have gotten stuck in the snow; there was a tragic incident on the weekend when the fire crews couldn't put out a house fire even though they worked desperately with snow plow crews to free their stuck truck. The most they could do was wade through thigh-deep snow to the house to get the residents safely out. But they had to stand helplessly and watch the house burn. Firefighters take that kind of situation very hard.

Even many snow plows were getting stuck on Saturday -- even the big trucks. Residents who saw that would grab their shovels and run to dig out the trucks. Same for other vehicles that were stuck.

There were thousands of vehicular incidents, from crashes to tractor-trailer jack-knives, on the weekend. On Saturday morning at 10 AM Martin O'Malley, the Governor of Maryland, held a press conference and grimly addressed the issue.

He asked, "If you won't play in the ocean during a hurricane, why would you go out on the roads during a severe snowstorm?"

Many people didn't listen -- including big rig interstate drivers. When they got stuck on ramps or they crashed, the rigs blocked traffic on highways with only one lane cleared. That made it impossible for ambulances and other first responders to get through. And it meant that snow plows and tow trucks had to be diverted to haul the wreckage away.

By the afternoon on Saturday, Maryland State Trooper officials were furious with the situation. One told a TV station (I think maybe it was WJLA) that they'd put up warnings to interstate truckers all the way to New Jersey to not attempt to drive into the District via Maryland at that time but that many truckers were ignoring the warnings.

When the TV station asked the Virginia State Troopers if they were having the same problem they got stonewalled by a representative. They finally spoke with someone in the state police and learned that Virginia was having the same problem as Maryland; there had already been 3,000 vehicular incidents.

Of course there are some people who have to be out on the roads but you can see the difference today, after the warnings and imprecations finally sank in. The traffic reporters were pointing to their traffic-cams, which showed very few vehicles on the roads.

Pepco reporting there are now 4,000 power outages in their service area. New outages in areas serviced by other utilities but I didn't catch the totals.

Back to 8:00 AM: Dennis Rubin said he was worried about the next snowstorm on the horizon for the District. He's worried about the cumulative effects. WUSA reported this morning that the next storm will just be a "Clipper" to arrive on Monday and move right out.

Yeah, but there's a lot that can happen in the upper atmosphere between now and then, as we saw when a nuisance storm morphed into today's monster. So now it's a race to get as many power outages restored, roads plowed, grocery stores restocked, and snow removed. And get more roofs cleared of snow buildup.

These roof collapses are not just striking the obvious roofs. This weekend a roof at a fire station collapsed in the middle of the night. The fire crew was okay; some vehicles were damaged. So the crew bunked a fire station in another country. No sooner had they settled that the roof at that station collapsed.

Back to Noon
O'Malley, who's having a presser right now, just announced that the federal government is treating the cascade of snowstorms as one incident so Maryland can get federal emergency funds. Probably the same will happen for Virginia and the District.

12:40 PM
The winds have picked up here again; they're howling outside our window and there are still near-whiteout conditions with the snow. But WUSA is reporting right now that in some regions the sun is peeking through as the snow bands move out, although the winds remain high. The winds are expected to remain until tomorrow.

Hospitals in the region are putting out a "desperate" call for volunteers with SUVs to help transport patients. However, driving an SUV is no guarantee of not getting stuck so only volunteers on mercy runs should take the risk.

All and all the city, federal, and county agencies that have been involved with handling the myriad situations created by the snow emergencies have done a great job. The strategy of focusing exclusively on plowing major roads has been the only mistake I know about, and that mistake was because they didn't have a crystal ball.

Up to this time there have been no casualties associated with today's storm and arguably only two throughout all the storms -- two men who seemed to have died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a car, perhaps because they didn't know to clear impacted snow from the car's muffler.

This region sees so little snow that precautions that are automatic for people in say, Albany, have to be taught to residents here.

There was also a father and son who were killed on Friday when they got out of their car to help a stranded motorist. But if that's the situation I've heard about they probably would have been killed, snow or no snow. They were struck by a drunk driver who'd already had her license revoked.

There have been countless missions of mercy of all kinds during these storms. I've seen people going on foot through snowdrifts to bring bags of groceries to elderly neighbors, and shoveling their walks for them. And the National Guard pitched in to help the firefighters.

Kudos also to WUSA-9, which has been a lifeline for residents in this region. On Friday WJLA News (ABC TV local affiliate) and WRC News (NBC local)abandoned their audience and switched to prime-time programming. WUSA News bumped their prime time programs to after midnight, then stayed on the air from early afternoon until midnight giving reports on the snow emergency and all related situations.

As for the Fox local network affiliate -- I confess that I forgot to check on their reporting.

On Saturday WUSA stayed on the snow story all day and again until midnight. The other two stations took a powder again and switched from snow reporting to prime time shows. I can't believe they thought programs such as My life with the Nanny, or whatever that reality show is called, took precedence over keeping their audience informed about the snow emergency. It takes all kinds, I guess.

Anyhow, WUSA has done a great job, a great public service, during this crisis for the nation's capital. I for one will show my gratitude by making WUSA my source for local news.

Anyone outside the region who wants to keep up with the snow situation here, visit the WUSA website. They also have posted resources, such as the addresses for "warming centers" in the region (places where residents without heat can stay), utility companies, and so on.

1:30 PM
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) is elaborating for WUSA on the decision to release federal emergency funds to Maryland. Ordinarily the snowfall has to be 28 inches before such funds can be released. Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano recognized the special situation and put today's storm and the weekend one together, and called them the "Valentine's Day" snow emergency.

That's a good note on which to end this report. Right now winds gusting over 50 mph; lightning in some regions and "This is the storm that just refuses to move much" according to WUSA chief meteorologist Topper Shutt. Moderate to heavy snow still falling here and with an "unprecedented" wind pattern.

2:18 PM Update
So many emergency response vehicles are getting stuck in the snow that authorities are now asking drivers to respond only to life-threatening situations.

2:26 PM
VDOT has put up message on light signs on interstate overpasses: "WHITEOUT CONDITIONS. DO NOT DRIVE."

The rep told WUSA that VDOT had never put up such a message before. She also said that conditions in Northern Virginia are still very bad and that she doesn't know at the moment about farther south in the state.

2:31 PM
District has announced they're going ahead and trying to get side streets plowed; they're using private contractors with small front-end loader plows, bobcats, etc. to attack and remove snows that haven't been plowed even once. That's good news.

I should add that Mayor Fenty tried to get the city back to work on Monday -- he even demanded that city workers show up on Monday morning, even though many couldn't get out of their driveways.

He also announced Sunday night that he was opening the schools on Monday morning. Parents went up in arms -- there was no kids could get to the school. The Metro buses weren't even running.

So that decision lasted for all of an hour or two. But even though he backtracked and said the kids and teachers didn't have to show up, he demanded that the administrators show up. This only clogged roads that plow crews were trying to clear ahead of the next storm. Every agency connected with handling the snow emergency has been yelling and screaming, STAY OFF THE ROADS.

But at least Fenty tried to keep the city running and not pay for additional snow days -- although he went overboard.

2:48 PM

Here's that rainy day they told us about

Okay, I really am logging off now but for continuity I'll tack on here my post from yesterday and emphasize the passage about Haiti's disaster and the Washington snow emergency. This series of historic snowstorms in the Greater Washington, DC area couldn't have come at a worse time given the severe strain on local and federal budgets. But Nature never waits for a convenient time ....

Saturday night, February 6
We got respect even from Albany, New York, which has to be one of the blizzard capitals of the USA; Greater Washington, DC's snow totals for this winter are running ahead of theirs. But it's not so much the totals -- as high as 40 inches recorded in Colesville, Maryland -- as the speed with which they accumulated during just this one snowstorm. Those 40 inches fell within a 30 hour period.

The storm that crept in on little cat feet on Friday morning roared like a lion across West Virginia, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Maryland with such ferocity that even its 'outer bands' dumped more than two feet of snow as far north as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

"This is a winter hurricane," announced Topper Shutt on Friday night -- Topper is chief meteorologist for CBS TV local affiliate WUSA-9 in Washington -- "And this is our storm, not New York's storm, nobody else's storm."

Actually I think the massive weather front that created the hurricane-like conditions blew in from Georgia or the Carolinas but yes, it was our very own blizzard.

And everybody here knows that some spoilsport camped out at Reagan National airport during the storm and kept blowing on the ruler so the final total for Washington, DC for the Friday-Saturday storm was only 17.8 inches Reagan National is in Alexandria, Virginia, for crying out loud.

Okay, Reagan is not much more than a stone's throw from the District but why can't we have our own official snow measuring ruler? Why why why do we have to depend on the one at National? Virtually all parts of the District got hit with about 24 inches during that 30-hour period.

Tuesday February 9, 9:30 AM Eastern Time
All fine here; thanks to readers who've inquired. We have enough groceries to last a month and if we stretch it maybe until Spring lol. So there's nothing to do now but hunker down and wait for today's storm to arrive.

Washington's quartet of winter snowstorms, and the suspension of much ordinary activity here because of them, has put me in a contemplative mood. Of course the trials and triumphs of Washingtonians due to this winter's snow emergencies in no way equal those of the Haitians dealing with the January earthquake. And yet the snowstorms reveal as much about the fragility of even the most advanced, wealthy urban societies as the earthquake did about poor and underdeveloped ones.

Haiti's earthquake took 16 seconds to strike. The snows in Washington -- and here I mean the Greater Washington, DC area, which includes parts of Virginia and Maryland -happened over a period of weeks; the potential for disaster unfolded slowly, in cumulative fashion.

The first big snowstorm -- among the top ten snows for Washington, at more 10 inches, on December 19 -- caused a great deal of inconvenience but things were quickly put to rights as city, county, and state-federal governments efficiently chewed through the storm's aftermath. The second storm, which dumped no more than a couple inches on the District, was in the nuisance category.

The next storm, the one that struck on Friday February 5 and went through Saturday afternoon -- everyone had plenty of advance warning it would be The Big One and that they should prepare to be snowbound for at least a couple days.

So while there wasn't exactly a festival atmosphere ahead if the snow's arrival, which converged with preparations for Super Bowl parties, there was sort of a Swiss Family Robinson adventure about it. Everyone knew the drill -- stand in line at the stories, stock up on enough groceries for three or four days, get batteries and candles, ice melt, and so on.

Grocery chains in the region had gone to DEFCON1 at the first mention of the storm -- double and quadruple ordering, so that the stores wouldn't be picked clean in the first hours hordes of customers descended to stock up.

All city, state, and federal agencies in any way involved in snowstorm management across Virginia, Maryland, and the District had also geared up for war. The local utilities put out calls to utility companies in other states, as they do ahead of summer hurricanes, to send as many workers as they could spare to help restore downed power lines even before the storm ended.

Washingtonians, tired of being laughed at for years in Buffalo and Albany and other regions in the USA where two feet of snow was nothing, were determined that the Big One wouldn't cripple the city so badly it would take weeks to recover.

There was more than city pride at stake: federal and state snow budgets had been pretty much decimated by the first major snowstorm this year. And while many in the region's workforce were employed by federal and city governments and agencies or big corporations that paid employees for snow days, the recession had been hard on hourly workers and those employed in small businesses that couldn't afford to pay for snow days. Washington's working stiffs had to get back to work as quickly as possible, even if Congress used the excuse of the storm to play hooky.

On Friday afternoon, the 5th, as The Big One closed in, the local meteorologists mentioned another snow a few days out, "but it'll be just a few flakes, at most a couple inches -- a nuisance snowfall."

On Sunday afternoon, when the full scope of The Big One's crippling aftermath was evident, the meteorologists were grim-faced. The "nuisance" storm on the horizon was growing, and possibly threatening to be another Big One when it arrived sometime on the 9th.

At that point Washington wasn't in the bull's eye of the storm's path, they said; the worst of the storm would be farther north and dump probably no more than 10 inches on Washington.

Now the meteorologists are reporting that the bull's eye will be north and east of Washington; the big east coast cities -- Philadelphia, New York, and Boston -- "could get clobbered" with two feet or more of snow.

The worst part of the storm will hit Washington tomorrow morning and afternoon, with high winds -- 20 to 40 mph. Snowfall for Washington is now expected to be between 8-16 inches, with blizzard conditions tomorrow afternoon.

No comments: