Howard County residents and officials are preparing for the worst as a potentially historic blizzard barrels its way across the East Coast, possibly leaving much of the region buried in as much as two feet of snow over the weekend.
Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency starting Friday morning. Howard County schools cancelled school activities today through Sunday before sighting a single snowflake.
The looming forecast has shifted very little over the past few days. The heaviest snowfall will begin Friday evening, leading up to as much as two feet of snow through Saturday night, according to the National Service. Chilling winds with gusts up to 55 miles per hour and frosty temperatures in the 20s will lead to near-zero visibility, causing "potential life threatening conditions" according to the service.
As county crews prepare, the rush to stock-up for the potential snow-in led to long queues and empty aisles at local grocery and maintenance stores.
The Home Depot in Ellicott City swiftly ran out of salt yesterday. A steady stream of customers picked up shovels as staff restocked boxes. Loads of salt are coming in from all over the East Coast, said Steven Galliard, the store manager.
"I'm saying bring it on, no matter how hard it gets," said Andrew Ferguson, a project manager from Ellicott City. With a power generator, snow blower and food ready, he's looking forward to passing the time playing cards and listening to his kids play the guitar and piano. "You just ride it out."
Deanna Grabelle is also ready for a no-technology zone if the power goes out. The teacher — who moved from Maine with her husband who is an active duty marine in 2013 - visited the Howard County Library System's Central Branch to stock up on books, but she hasn't tracked down a second shovel yet — stores she visited were out last night.
"The first year we were here, our neighbors said we brought the snow with us," she said, chuckling.
Weathering through a storm is a balancing act, Grabelle said. "If the power goes out, we're going to be doing a lot of eating."
As the mid-Atlantic region braces for a predicted 2 feet of snow and heavy winds, a blizzard watch for Howard County has been upgraded to a blizzard warning that will be in effect from 3 p.m. on Friday to 6 a.m. on Sunday. Public schools and school offices in the county will be closed on Friday, in anticipation of the storm, and all after-school activities scheduled to take place in the county's schools – including athletic games -- are canceled through Sunday.
The quest to treat roughly 1,048 miles of Howard County's local roads began last night as vehicles were pre-loaded with salt and other pre-treatment substances. Highways bureau chief Tom Meunier, hopes all local roads will be pre-treated four to six hours before the storm hits.
With a cadre of 150 staffers who operate snow removal vehicles and reserves of 22,100 tons of salt available, local officials will begin emergency operations at 7 a.m. today.
The Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services will increase the number of staff on engines to four across all units beginning 7 p.m. today. All field supervisors will have a partner for safety purposes, said Maria Hogg.
Employee fatigue is a major challenge, Meunier said. The county has contractors on the line to ensure it is adequately staffed to clear the county's 4,121 roads.
"When you have storms of this magnitude, the biggest challenge is trying to keep the citizens expectations in control," he said. "There's going to be two feet of snow on the ground. It's going to take a lot of time."
All major county roadways should be cleared within 12 to 18 of hours after the storm ends, according to Mark Miller of the county's public information office. The timetable may change based on the severity and impact of the storm.
Katherine Rockstroh, a longtime Columbia resident, isn't worried about the delay. "I'm a teacher so I have a ton of work to do all the time," said Rockstroh, who teaches at Resurrection St. Paul School in Ellicott City. "I'm looking forward to the vacation."
Though new to the area, Lois Huffman, 63, is no newcomer to snow. After moving from Denver, Colorado a little over a year ago, the retired nurse hopes to access local services to help her clear snow in her area. The Office of Aging maintains a list of people available to help the elderly shovel out.
"I've been through worse," Huffman said, recalling a Denver snowstorm in the late 80s when she was snowed in at a local hospital for five days. "I know I'll get snowed in. You just stay home and stay off the road."
Tom McNeal joined the Office of Emergency Management at the brink of the crippling blizzard in 2010, which left the county buried in roughly 38 inches of snow. "We have six years worth of training," he said. "A lot of lessons are based on that experience… [including] the level of preparedness and planning."
The blizzard of 2010 rendered it "nearly impossible" to safely discharge admitted inpatients to Howard County General Hospital, leading to a lack of patient beds, according to a 2011 county press release. At one point in the crisis, all but one of the 36 treatment beds in the emergency department was occupied.
With no place to care for patients, the hospital and a HCDFRS task force partnered to transport patients using three four-wheel drive vehicles and one ambulance, allowing 13 patients to be transported over 12 hours.
As of Thursday night, the hospital — which operates under its own disaster plan — has made "no such request" for special transport of discharged patients. "We will most likely be very busy with emergency responses and not be available to drive patients home depending on the weather situation in the county."
Officials will continue to monitor the situation. "We're constantly preparing," said Sharon Sopp, the public relations manager at Howard County General Hospital. The hospital often sees many heart-related issues and fall-induced injuries during snowstorms, she said.
Overall, McNeal expects transportation will be the biggest challenge. "Unless you're right behind a plow truck," he added.
In the last fiscal year, officials dipped into the county's general fund contingency reserve to cover an additional nearly $2 million in snow removal costs. $900,000 was transferred from the police department.
A light layer of snow on Wednesday night crippled much of the D.C. region, raising fears about what lies ahead.
Residents can monitor the progress of road crews using the county's snowplow tracker. But the service – as indicated on the site - is not 100 percent accurate. If a plow clears the intersection of two roads, it may show portions of those roads plowed as well. The tool is designed to give residents "a general sense" of crews working in the area, Miller said.
Local and national officials provided tips and procedures to get through the storm:
•Re-fill any prescriptions.
•Ensure emergency kits contain clothing, blankets, snow shovels, rock salt, sand and heating fuel.
•Prepare for power outages by checking flashlights. To report a BGE power outage, call 1-877-778-2222 or visit www.bge.com. If you smell natural gas or see a downed power line, leave the area immediately and then call BGE's emergency line at 1-800-685-0123. Potomac Edison Company customers, to report a power outage call 1-888-544-4877 (call this number to report a downed power line) or visitwww.firstenergycorp.com/content/customer/potomac_edison.html.
•Check in on the elderly and those at risk.
•Ensure adequate food – at least 72 hours worth – is available.
•Do not park on streets, especially cul-de-sacs. Doing so makes snow removal nearly impossible for highway crews.
•Residents may want to delay shoveling driveway aprons and sidewalks until the street is cleared to prevent swaths of snow sliding onto driveways.
•Howard County does not maintain sidewalks, with the exception of those next to county buildings. Property owners near sidewalks abutting in a public right-of-way is responsible for removing snow within 48 hours after the snow has fallen.