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Heavy snow halts travel as Baltimore region gets hit with blizzard

The Baltimore region was at a standstill Saturday as the snow of what could be a historic winter storm continued to blanket roads, potentially leaving many Marylanders snowbound under 2 feet or more through the weekend.

Double-digit snowfall was reported across the Baltimore region by midday Saturday, leaving most roads buried, flights grounded, and businesses shuttered. Snow was forecast to continue into the late evening hours.

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Gov. Larry Hogan thanked residents for heeding calls to stay at home.

"I want to thank Marylanders for the common sense they have shown thus far," he said in a statement. "I want to urge people to continue to stay off of the roads unless travel is absolutely essential. It is still very dangerous out there and stalled and abandoned vehicles make it that much harder for snow plow operators."

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Transit service around Baltimore was suspended for only the fourth time in four decades. Flight cancellations mounted at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where no commercial flights were cancelled were expected to come or go Saturday.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. marshaled resources to respond to power outages, though spokesman Aaron Koos said Saturday morning that outages have been "fairly light." About 224 BGE were without power as of just after noon, and outages affecting another 2,100 customers had been restored.

"We're still mobilized. The winds the rest of the day are still a concern," Koos said.

Shopping malls and schools across the region remained closed Saturday. The U.S. Postal Service closed offices early Friday and service was suspended Saturday.

Vehicles without tires equipped for snow were banned from state roads designated as snow emergency routes.

Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman Charlie Gischlar reported no major incidents on state roads Saturday morning.

"A lot of people heeded our warning to stay off the roads," he said, though some tractor-trailers were jackknifed on Interstate 70 in Carroll and Frederick counties and some passenger cars were got stuck in different areas, he said.

Gischlar said people should stay off the roads again Saturday to allow plows to work. He said there are about 3,100 pieces of equipment working, but as soon as soon a road is cleared, the winds blow it back.

"It's just plow, plow, plow," he said. "We're clearing as best we can right now."

City officials had said they were considering whether to ban all traffic, besides plows and emergency vehicles, from streets as they did during the twin snowstorms in February 2010. As of midday Saturday, only vehicles with snow tires, radial tires or snow chains.

City transportation officials said that by 8 a.m. Saturday, crews had towed 50 vehicles parked along snow emergency routes and nearly a dozen other vehicles abandoned after getting stuck on Interstate 83 and other city roads.

"Our crews are working very hard, in 12 hour shifts, and because we have been able to do so without significant interference by the number of abandoned vehicles that we have had in the past, we've been able to be effective out there," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said during a Saturday morning news conference.

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The National Weather Service expects 18 to 24 inches of snow will fall along the Interstate 95 corridor, with higher totals to the west.

Blizzard conditions, with 25- to 35-mph winds and gusts upward of 40 to 50 mph blowing the heavy snow, were expected to reduce visibility to a quarter-mile or less at times Saturday.

"It's going to be dangerous during the day for any travel really anywhere in the I-95 corridor," said Alyson Hoegg, a meteorologist for AccuWeather.com.

Anticipating those conditions, transportation officials across the region urged people to stay home.

"Now is the time for Marylanders to stay at home and off the roads," Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement. "This is the safe choice. It will also allow emergency services vehicles to maneuver and road crews to begin the long process of clearing highways and streets."

Many Marylanders heeded the warning, scurrying home before the first snows fell. Few incidents were reported during what became a light Friday evening commute.

Residents settled down for what could be a long, snowbound weekend.

"I am a little worried that the power will go out, because I don't have a generator, but I have got blankets and fleece and all that," said Donna Day of Abingdon as she was picking up last-minute ice melt and products like bread, milk and nonperishable foods Friday at her local Wegmans.

A former member of the military who returned from Afghanistan about a year ago, Day said she isn't too concerned about the blizzard.

"It's much better than the Taliban firing at you," she said.

Staying home has its benefits, said Kathleen Brockway, author of books on Maryland and Michigan's deaf culture and history.

Being "stuck at home helped me focus on the third hard-copy book," said Brockway who lives in Bowie and is preparing to write about another state. "Excitement about the blizzard of 2016 sure gave me a big distraction on writing as the big sliding glass door is in front of my office."

The state activated its snow emergency plan at noon Friday, requiring vehicles traveling on state roads designated as snow emergency routes to have chains, snow tires or all-season radials.

"Our goal is to keep one travel lane open and passable on major highways for emergency vehicles during the storm and focus on plowing all lanes once the snow stops," said Gregory Johnson, administrator of the State Highway Administration.

City officials said 600 workers and hundreds of pieces of equipment have been readied to clear streets but that travel is likely to remain unsafe until Sunday.

They added that cleanup is expected to go more quickly than it did after the back-to-back storms in February 2010 because they hired a number of private contractors — at a combined cost of $40,000 an hour — to work on clearing neighborhood streets while city crews focus on major arteries.

"We are gearing up for a long-term response to what's shaping up to be a major snowstorm," said William M. Johnson, director of the city's Department of Transportation. "If you don't have to go out, don't go out."

Johnson said if conditions make it unsafe for crews to work clearing the roads, the city would likely ban all but emergency vehicles and plows from the roads.

All Maryland Transit Administration services — including local buses, commuter buses, light rail, MARC trains, Metro and Mobility/Paratransit services — were to be suspended by midnight Friday, said Paul W. Comfort, the MTA administrator. Service will not resume until Monday.

"Everything will be off the street for the next 48 hours" for the safety of customers and operators, Comfort said.

The MTA has shut down all service only three times before in the past 40 years, Comfort said.

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Nearly 300 flights to and from BWI were canceled by Friday afternoon, and the airport Saturday announced all flights were cancelled.

Rail traffic could see the least disruption. Amtrak trains maintained routine schedules Friday, while some trains could be delayed Saturday and Sunday, said Kimberly Woods, an Amtrak spokeswoman.

"We will adjust accordingly," she said.

There will be relatively few places for residents to go, even if they do venture out.

Attractions such as the Port Discovery Children's Museum, the Maryland Zoo and Star-Spangled Banner Flag House closed on Friday and said they would not open this weekend. Concerts including Garth Brooks, the Young Hustle Tour and Keys N Krates at Baltimore Soundstage were canceled or postponed.

Arundel Mills mall said it would close Saturday. Towson Town Center, The Mall in Columbia and Mondawmin Mall all closed early Friday and told shoppers to visit their Facebook pages and websites for further updates on mall hours.

Neighborhood bars and restaurants planned to welcome those with cabin fever. Bars like Banditos Bar & Kitchen, MaGerk's Pub and Mad River Bar & Grill in Federal Hill are offering drink specials all weekend, while QuarterHouse Tavern in Canton said it would offer happy-hour prices as long as snow is falling.

The Station North Arts Cafe offered free hot chocolate for a week for the winner of a snowman-making contest.

While many of the warnings regarding the potential blizzard have focused on keeping off the roads and staying indoors, efforts also are underway to shelter people who don't have anywhere to stay, Health Care for the Homeless CEO Kevin Lindamood said.

The organization, along with other nonprofits and city homeless services staff, spent Friday urging people who might try to ride out the storm outdoors to seek shelter.

City shelters are stretching capacity up to fire code restrictions, and overflow shelter space is being opened, he said.

"We're trying our best to get people indoors and to places where they can stay," Lindamood said.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Meredith Cohn and Bryna Zumer contributed to this article.

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