WASHINGTON — Shoppers jammed aisles and emptied stores of milk, bread and shovels ahead of a monster snow storm bearing down Friday on the Mid-Atlantic, with 30 inches or more forecast for the nation’s capital. The federal government sent workers home early and subways ran light as people stayed home.
The region’s second snow storm in less than two months could be “extremely dangerous,” the National Weather Service said. Heavy, wet snow and strong winds would make travel hazardous as the storm gains strength into Friday night.
Two highways deaths were blamed on snow as the storm started in Virginia. Light flakes started falling around noon in downtown D.C. as forecasters warned 30 inches or more of heavy, wet snow, accompanied by powerful winds, could fall through Saturday in Washington, Baltimore and surroundings. It could be the heaviest snowfall since January 1922 in the nation’s capital.
Airlines canceled flights across the region and school districts closed for the day ahead of the winter storm forecast from Virginia and West Virginia across Maryland into southern New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Some flights at Reagan National Airport were delayed Friday morning. At least 18 afternoon flights were canceled, including those run by Delta and US Airways.
John Dean, 43, of Broken Bow, Okla., was hoping his scheduled 3 p.m. flight to Dallas would not be canceled because his wife has to go on a trip on Sunday. “I gotta get back and take care of the kids, so she’s been greatly concerned” about the weather, he said.
Residents in the Washington area scrambled for food and supplies, but many found they were too late.
Colleen Sport, who just moved to the area from Atlanta, was at the Home Depot in Falls Church, Va.
“I was looking for salt and shovels and of course they’re out,” said Sport, 42. “Now I’m just hoping to get shelving and work inside.”
In Alexandria, Va., James Ivery, 60, and his wife had already bought supplies but were back at a Harris Teeter supermarket Friday morning to get out of the house one last time before the storm. Many shelves and bins were emptied of milk, vegetables, eggs and cold cuts.
“It just seems like people are panicking. I don’t think it’s going to be too bad,” Ivery said. “As long as I got power and satellite service, I’ll be fine.”
The federal government, the region’s largest employer, told workers they could take Friday off as unplanned leave and prepared to shut offices four hours early.
Metro, the Washington-area rail system, said ridership Friday morning was about 23 percent less than on the same day last week, a sign people were heeding official warnings to stay home. Metro warned it would likely have to close all but the underground portions of the system during the storm. Trains cannot operate outside when snow accumulations reach 8 inches because the snow cuts off access to the electrified third rail that powers the trains.
Virginia State Police say a father and son died after being hit by a tractor-trailer while trying to help a driver who had wrecked in snow on Interstate 81. Police say 25-year-old William Edward Smith Jr. of Morresburg, Tenn., and 54-year-old William Edward Smith Sr. of Sylva., N.C., both died at the scene.
Across the region, state officials were deploying thousands of trucks and employees and had hundreds of thousands of tons of salt at the ready.
“This is not a good mix,” said Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. “Heavy, wet snow with gusting winds is going to make it a very tough storm for us. I expect visibility will be very poor in spots, and we’ll have to deal with drifting snow.”
Blizzard warnings were in effect in much of Delaware and southern New Jersey from Friday afternoon to Saturday night, with strong winds and blowing, drifting snow.
Philadelphia could get about a foot of snow and 12 to 20 inches are expected in the Pittsburgh area.
The combination of wet snow and strong winds could make conditions even more treacherous than a Dec. 19 storm that dumped more than 16 inches of snow on Washington.
Snowfalls of this magnitude — let alone two in one season — are rare in the area. According to the National Weather Service, Washington has gotten more than a foot of snow only 13 times since 1870. The heaviest on record was 28 inches in January 1922. But the biggest snowfall is believed to have occurred in 1772, before official records were kept, when as much as 3 feet fell in the Washington-Baltimore area. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson mentioned the event in their diaries, according to the weather service.
Virginia’s General Assembly canceled Friday’s floor sessions and committee meetings, the first time anyone could remember that the threat of snow had sent the whole legislature home.
Southwest Airlines canceled Friday afternoon flights at Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington airports. Amtrak canceled most trains heading south from Washington, D.C.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has been in office less than a month, declared his second snow emergency, authorizing state agencies to assist local governments. The assistance includes deploying National Guard soldiers and emergency response teams.
Between the December storm and several smaller snowfalls, the region’s road crews have had plenty of practice in the past two months.
Maryland highway officials said they have spent about $50 million so far clearing and treating roads this winter. That’s almost twice the $26 million that had been budgeted.
The Virginia Department of Transportation said it already spent the $79 million budgeted for statewide snow removal and was tapping into emergency maintenance funds. Once that $25 million reserve is exhausted, the department said it will have to dip into other programs to cover its costs.
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