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Untimely snowfall confounds commute


We should be used to this by now. After enduring 51 inches of snow in this winter without end, we should be old pros at coping with something as minor as the few flakes that fell yesterday.

But we're not.

The snow arrived with the morning rush hour, about 7, and it shut down roads, sent children home from schools, caught road and highway officials off-guard and snarled traffic all over the place. School buses in St. Mary's County were told to turn around in midrun.

And it's not over yet. Forecasters predict an additional 6 to 12 inches of snow today into tomorrow morning, with still more forecast for Saturday.

"Here we go again," said veteran WTOP radio traffic reporter Bob Marbourg. "We had a rush hour that was disproportionate in its delays to the amount of snow that fell. It doesn't take much snow to elevate us from routine misery to extreme misery."

With yesterday's snowfall, the winter of 2003 became the second-snowiest on record in Baltimore.

Before yesterday, 51.1 inches had fallen at Baltimore-Washington International Airport this season, tying for third place with the winter of 1888-1889.

The 1.7 inches that landed at BWI by 6 p.m. pushed the season's total to 52.8 inches, surpassing the 51.8 inches that fell in 1963-1964.

It didn't help that the timing of yesterday's storm was a surprise. Roads officials had expected it to come much later in the day, so they didn't pretreat roads or have crews on standby. When the trucks did go out, they sat in traffic with everyone else.

"The worst possible time to have snow is rush hour," said State Highway Administration spokeswoman Fran Ward. "Everybody's out, and the trucks can't get out because of the traffic."

In some places where ice became too dangerous, officials took the extreme step of closing roads to traffic so that salt trucks could get in and do their job. Interstate 70, for instance, was closed just west of the Baltimore Beltway for 20 minutes yesterday morning.

100 accidents

The real problem, though, was fender-benders that blocked lanes and provoked rubbernecking. Local and state police reported at least 100 weather-related accidents yesterday morning. Most were minor, but a good number involved overturned cars or serious injuries.

The high number of accidents and slippery sidewalks led to a large crowd at Howard County General Hospital, which by yesterday afternoon had treated six people involved in car crashes and 33 with slip and fall injuries.

"We're going gangbusters over here," said Mary Patton, a hospital spokeswoman, who added that none of the injuries was thought to be life-threatening.

When people finally made it to work, they traded stories about how long it took to get there. One sure winner was Stephanie Martinez, whose typical 45-minute drive from Annapolis to Silver Spring stretched into four agonizing hours.

"It was a nightmare this morning," said Martinez, 31, who works in human relations at Westwood One. "I had time to balance my checkbook. I called my sister. I called my kids. You're sitting there and traffic is absolutely at a standstill."

One commuter spent 25 minutes on the ramp to the Baltimore Beltway at Security Boulevard in Woodlawn. Another said she saw people getting out of their cars and just walking around the Capital Beltway.

Most school systems in the state opened on time yesterday because snow wasn't falling when that decision had to be made. But it soon became clear that the snow was making an early appearance, and most systems sent children home early.

"I wanted to get kids home before the commuter traffic," said Carroll County Superintendent Charles I. Ecker. "The buses could have made it in the snow, but I was worried about kids on roads that are still narrow and have snowdrifts."

In St. Mary's County, officials announced at 8:15 a.m. that they would be sending children home - immediately. Middle and high school students were already at school, but elementary school pupils were still on their way. Bus drivers were contacted by radio and told to turn around and take the kids home.

"It looked like the roads were getting worse, and we wanted to get them home as soon as we could," said St. Mary's Deputy Superintendent R. Lorraine Fulton. "We realize this is a terrible inconvenience for parents, and we simply have to put safety first."

Hard to predict

Forecasters, who had been mostly on target this year, were off yesterday. By 4 a.m., the National Weather Service had issued a winter storm warning for the region. But its forecasts still showed nothing more threatening to the early rush hour than "scattered flurries until midmorning."

It was a tough forecast, said Jeff Warner of the Penn State Weather Communications Group.

"It's really a fairly complex pattern right now, with numerous weak disturbances quickly moving west to east, making it very difficult to pin the exact timing on anything," he said.

Baltimore transportation officials, like everyone else, said they weren't ready. They hustled to get 105 pieces of snow-removal equipment onto city streets by 7:30 a.m. The State Highway Administration had 1,200 trucks out, many on the road by 7 a.m., said spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar.

"People didn't expect it, and add the fact that our trucks couldn't get to the roads because there were cars on them," Edgar said. "That's just the worst-case scenario. You're not able to do what you need to do."

Motorists sitting in traffic had plenty of time to ponder why their fellow drivers couldn't seem to handle the weather that has become routine this season.

Overconfident or inept

Authorities said many accidents were caused by driving too fast - especially overconfident owners of SUVs.

"Four wheels will get you there, but they won't stop you if you're heading in the wrong direction," said Robert Altman, director of operations for the Baltimore office of Metro Networks traffic control. "People think they can drive faster than they actually should be driving."

Those people just can't help themselves, said one human behavior expert. Gerson Alexander, who lives in Rockville and consults for the State Highway Administration, said people in this region still aren't used to snow, even after all we've had this year.

"Generally, people who aren't exposed to an awful lot of snow are taken by surprise when their vehicles don't respond the way they normally do," Alexander said.

"If you drive 12,000 miles a year, and less than 500 are in adverse conditions, you're really not going to develop the skills you need to be able to respond."

Alexander grew up in Philadelphia and has lived in Maryland since 1969. He said the drivers here aren't any worse - or better - than those in Pennsylvania or Virginia.

"The level of ineptness here," he said, "is probably the same."

Motorists won't have to wait long for more practice in snowy conditions. Today's snowfall was expected to begin in the afternoon and continue into tomorrow morning.

Forecasters' computer models disagreed on how and where the new storm would develop. But the most likely scenario seemed to have the storm center crossing the Carolinas today, drawing moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic into our region. When the moisture runs up against the cold air in place, it will fall as snow.

"There is good potential for heavy snowfall," said David Manning, a weather service meteorologist.

The snowiest winter on record in Baltimore remains, for now, 1995-1996, when 62.5 inches was recorded at the airport. This February has been the snowiest February on record, with 36 inches of snow even before yesterday's storm arrived.

Sun staff writers Tricia Bishop, Reginald Fields, Linda Linley, Jennifer McMenamin, Jason Song, Sheridan Lyons and Ted Shelsby contributed to this article.

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