The "snow drops" arrived two days ago: 600 extra loaves of bread and 600 extra cartons of milk.
By noon yesterday, Barbara Rogers had four of those loaves and two of those cartons -- and a slew of other foul-weather provisions -- in her shopping cart at the Giant supermarket at the Rotunda in North Baltimore.
All over the region, shoppers scrambled to stock their cupboards and refrigerators in anticipation of the snowstorm expected to hit here today.
More than a dozen people were lined up outside Giant when it opened at 9 a.m., unusual for a New Year's Day, when holiday revelers tend to be home asleep or sipping coffee.
Customers soon began complaining about having to stand in lines as many as seven shopping carts long.
"As soon as we opened the door, they rushed in here," said Dennis Eberlein, Giant's assistant manager, who estimated that the store traffic was twice as heavy as normal. "The four hot items are milk, bread, toilet paper and eggs."
Anticipating the demand, Giant officials arranged for a "heavy" snow drop, or extra shipment, of bread and milk Thursday.
The National Weather Service predicted that the storm would hit the region between noon and 3 p.m. today, as an intensifying low pressure system over Arkansas draws moisture into the area.
"We're expecting snow, sleet and freezing rain," said Jim DeCarufel, a Weather Service meteorologist based in Washington, D.C. He said the storm will most likely change to rain tonight before ending tomorrow.
"The timing of this storm is extremely unfortunate," said AAA spokesman Lon Anderson. "The Christmas-New Year's holiday period is the most heavily traveled in the entire year, so thousands of local residents will be on the roads and in the air this weekend."
An estimated 42 million people nationwide are expected to make road trips of 100 miles or more this weekend, Anderson said, up 2 percent from last year.
The forecast forced many travelers to change their plans.
Barbara Rogers' son, Michael, 27, was supposed to stay in town until tomorrow, but he will return to his Connecticut home today.
"We're going to get him out of here early," said Rogers, whose shopping cart was filled with extra bread, rice and soup for her son. "Hopefully he'll get up there."
For those who must drive, Anderson suggested allowing extra travel time, packing additional winter safety gear, bringing a cellular phone and setting up regular check-ins with family.
"The heavy precipitation, both ice and snow, [will] likely create very dangerous and potentially life-threatening conditions," Anderson said. "In such storms, even getting to and from airports to pick up travelers can become a very dangerous proposition."
At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, operations manager Bill Abel was readying the storm plan.
"We have people on call for snow," Abel said. "They're prepared to gear up the equipment, the plows and de-icers."
Abel suggested that travelers call their airlines before heading to the airport, to check on the status of their flight.
The storm's west-to-east track will play havoc with airline schedules that could mean even longer delays -- or cancellations -- for BWI.
As much as 15 inches of snow could fall in Chicago by tomorrow, and a spokeswoman for the city aviation department said personnel were preparing for delays and cancellations.
"Our airport is a feeder airport, and so there will be a ripple effect," said Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
"We're on the weather roulette wheel now."
Pub Date: 1/02/99