The Washington region shut down Friday as a winter storm of history-making magnitude that may paralyze the area for days swept in with the prospect that it would last for 36 hours and leave more than two feet of snow in some places.
As night fell, most streets were deserted, restaurants were dark, and downtown streets normally busy with rush-hour traffic were eerily quiet as they filled with snow that might not be plowed until Sunday. A few convenience stores, some gas stations and the occasional bar were all that seemed open in a region that is home to 6 million people.
Hundreds of plows and salt trucks already were out on major roads in Maryland and Virginia as what may have been the last stragglers headed for home at a cautious crawl. But with the snow expected to keep falling as fast as three inches an hour, it seemed a matter of time before even those big arteries would be shut down.
With temperatures just below freezing, the snow was heavy with moisture, and the forecast of gale force winds posed a threat to trees and power lines, raising fears that snowbound residents would be left in the dark and without heat.
Pepco,which provides power to the District of Columbia and much of the Maryland suburbs, warned customers that they may face multi-day outages. Dominion Virginia Power, which serves Northern Virginia, had similar fears.
“We began advising our customers earlier this week to prepare for a multi-day outage event. It’s always best to prepare for the worst,” said Dominion spokesman David Botkins. “With that said, we will be swarming the affected areas with crews to get the lights and heat back on as quickly and safely as possible.”
The snow’s arrival found Washington and its suburbs as prepared as they could be after days of warnings that this was a massive storm.
Despite the hyperbole used before for many storms, this one genuinely looked like it would be the storm of the young century for the region – and perhaps one that would be remembered for generations. The final forecast from The Post’s Capital Weather Gang called for 16 to 30 inches.
From the outset, the snow readily took hold on pavement and parked cars that had been in near or below freezing temperatures all week.
Government officials and police agencies have warned residents to gather supplies and stay off the roads.
By 5 p.m., conditions began to deteriorate rapidly, and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser urged stragglers to get off the streets. She said the District National Guard had reported for duty and would be deployed to transport personnel around the city as needed.
“We have a forecast that we haven’t had in 90 years,” Bowser (D) said. “It has life-and-death implications, and all the residents of the District of Columbia should treat it that way.”
Virtually all institutions and attractions in and around the capital region – including the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo – said they would be closed through the weekend. Metro said it did not plan to resume bus and rail service until Monday.
Though the region’s three major airports said they would remain open, airlines already had canceled hundreds of flights in and out of them. Amtrak said it hoped to operate on a reduced schedule in the Northeast Corridor but encouraged would-be passengers to check before heading to the train station.
District officials said they were well staffed with emergency personnel but cautioned that responses might be delayed.
City officials warned residents that the city will be dealing with cleanup throughout the coming week and said residents should not expect to see snow plows before Sunday.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) echoed that call for patience, saying it would take time for crews to clear the snow.
“We’re not magicians,” he said. “We can’t make it disappear.”
The District could see “multi-day” outages, Pepco officials cautioned customers in advance of what will almost certainly be the utility’s most formidable test in years.
Company officials said that it was too early to predict how power lines would stand up to the storm but that areas with above-ground lines and tree cover were the most vulnerable. Those areas include Northwest, upper Northeast and Southeast Washington.
Pepco has faced intense criticism for its relative slowness restoring power after past events, such as Snowmaggedon in 2010, when 98,000 customers lost electricity.
Since then, company officials said, they have invested millions of dollars hardening their infrastructure and training for emergencies.
“We want to communicate to our customers that we are prepared,” said Pepco President Donna Cooper, a tacit recognition of her utility’s having faced scathing criticism for its failings in handling past winter storms.
But in a statement Friday, Pepco said, “Because icy roads hamper restoration efforts, Pepco is prepared for the possibility of widespread outages that could take days to restore.”
The utility said it has 150 internal linemen, 200 contractors and 200 tree crews at the ready. Another 450 people from other utilities stretching from New England to South Carolina have come to the area to help – a result of mutual-aid agreements.
Meanwhile, the Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards postponed games they were scheduled to play Friday and Saturday, respectively.
At the Tractor Supply Co. in Marshall, Virginia, a steady stream of ruddy-faced farmers and country folk in this rural area prepared for the impending storm.
The fastest-selling items appeared to be insulated Carhart coats, saw shavings to keep critters warm in the snowstorm, and bags of feed to keep them from going hungry when the snow covers pastures.
In a clear display of the area’s fantastic wealth and humble, blue-collar socioeconomic strata, the parking lot was packed with an odd mix of 4X4 pickups sitting next to BMWs and Mercedes-Benz station wagons.
Inside, the store had sold out of ice melt by noon, but employees helpfully suggested bags of stock salt, the supplement for grazing animals filled with trace minerals such as manganese, iodine and copper.
The salt bag is recommended for beef and dairy cattle, goats, horses and, apparently, driveways made slippery by the freezing temperatures.
Nearby, Fauquier residents appeared calm before the storm as black angus cattle in a roadside rolling field stood chewing cud, a thin coat of snowflakes already covering their backs.
All the pre-storm hysteria seemed to have run its course as the snow began to fall Friday afternoon, and savvy shoppers or procrastinators who had waited until the last minute made their way to the stores. At some stores, at least, those who waited were rewarded with zero wait times for checkout, fully restocked shelves and the pleasant sensation of having outsmarted the masses.
Around 3 p.m. Friday, at Rodman’s on Wisconsin Avenue NW in the District, four cashiers were standing at their stations, sharing bags of Doritos and handling a thin stream of customers who arrived expecting to see hordes of desperate shoppers. Instead, they found empty aisles and decently well-stocked shelves. Even the holy winter trinity of milk, bread and toilet paper were available.
Similarly, sparse crowds were on hand at the Safeway a few blocks away.
And at Johnson’s Flower and Garden Center in Tenleytown, there was plenty of rock salt – an entire pallet of the snow-melting stuff – but only a handful of customers in a store that had been jammed with shoppers through most of the week.
In Montgomery County, the very last book checked out of the Wheaton Library before the doors were locked, the lights went out and the librarians went home to await the coming storm, was “The Stranger on the Train,” a thriller by Abbie Taylor.
“This is a guilty pleasure,” said Barry Fargo, an elementary school teacher who at noon Friday checked out that book along with books by Jhumpa Lahiri, Donna Tartt and Julia Pierpoint.
“When it’s snowy outside, there’s nothing like being tucked on the couch with a good book,” said Fargo, 34, of Wheaton, Maryland.
In tiny Clifton, Virginia, the cozy Main Street Pub was packed at mid-afternoon Friday with regular customers eager to enjoy themselves ahead of the storm.
“We always come for lunch on Saturdays, so we wanted to get here sooner and relax,” said Andy Melton, 59, a defense contractor. “This is always a comfortable place, and the snow makes it feel more intimate.”
Carlos Coronado, 46, a construction contractor munching on his favorite breaded pickles, said he was totally prepared for what’s to come. “I’ve got a generator and a snow blower. I’m ready,” he said.