Residents of Washington D.C. braced themselves Thursday for a record winter storm that some forecasters say could drop more than two feet of snow on the nation’s capital.
Late Thursday, the federal government announced that its offices would close at noon Friday. Earlier in the day, Washington’s Metro subway system announced that it would shut down entirely late Friday night and remain closed through Sunday for the sake of employee and rider safety. Underground stations usually stay open during major snowstorms.
The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for the District of Columbia, as well as parts of Maryland and Virginia, that will be in effect from Friday afternoon until early Sunday.
“The most intense part of the storm will come Saturday morning from around 4 a.m. through 12 p.m,” said Fox 5 DC meteorologist Gary McGrady. “We can expect heavy snow, possibly 2 inches per hour, and blizzard conditions with 30 to 35 mph winds creating legitimate whiteout conditions.” McGrady added that his forecast called for between 1 and 2 feet of snow to fall in the national capital region before all was said and done.
The Mid-Atlantic region is notorious for struggling to cope with winter weather, and a light dusting on Wednesday night served as an ominous prelude to the massive blizzard.
Less than an inch of snow was enough to immediately turn roadways treacherous in the District, Maryland and northern Virginia, causing hundreds of accidents and leaving drivers gridlocked for hours. President Obama wasn’t spared, as his motorcade slowly weaved and skidded along icy streets to the White House.
Mayor Muriel Bowser apologized to the city, saying more trucks should have been sent out to lay salt ahead of the snow — a mistake she said wouldn’t be repeated ahead of the much bigger storm arriving Friday.
The U.S. Capitol Police said sledding on Capitol Hill — which only recently became legal after an act of Congress — would be welcome for the first time in decades, as long as conditions are safe.
NWS Director Louis Uccellini warned at a news conference that the snowfall could easily cause more than $1 billion in damage and paralyze the Eastern third of the nation.
“It does have the potential to be an extremely dangerous storm that can affect more than 50 million people,” Uccellini said at the service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
Prediction center meteorologist Paul Kocin estimated more than 2 feet of snow for Washington, a foot to 18 inches for Philadelphia and eight inches to a foot in New York.
The snowfall could be as heavy as 1 to 3 inches per hour, and continue for 24 hours or more, Kocin said.
That could put this snowstorm near the top 10 to hit the East, with the weekend timing and days of warning helping to limit deaths and damage, said Kocin, who compared it to “Snowmageddon,” the first of two storms that “wiped out” Washington in 2010 and dumped up to 30 inches of snow in places.
Unfortunately, more than just snow is coming. Uccellini said it won’t be quite as bad as Superstorm Sandy, but people should expect high winds, a storm surge and inland flooding from Delaware to New York. Other severe but non-snowy weather is likely from Texas to Florida as the storm system chugs across the Gulf Coast, gaining moisture.
States of emergency were declared in the District of Columbia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, as well as in parts of other staes. Blizzard warnings or watches were in effect along the storm’s path, from Arkansas through Tennessee and Kentucky to the mid-Atlantic states and as far north as New York.
On Thursday, icy conditions caused accidents that killed two drivers in North Carolina and one in Tennessee. A truck with a snowplow killed a pedestrian while it was snowing in Maryland.
In New York, the Metropolitan Transit Authority said about 1,000 track workers will be deployed to keep New York City’s subway system moving, and 79 trains will have “scraper shoes” to reduce icing on the rails.
All major airlines have issued waivers for travel over the weekend, allowing passengers to rebook onto earlier or later flights to avoid the storms. The flight tracking site FlightAware estimates airlines will cancel at least 2,000 flights Friday and another 3,000 Saturday, which is the slowest travel days of the week. By Sunday afternoon, however, the airlines hope to be back to full schedule.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.