Snow fever is on the rise across the Baltimore region as last-minute Christmas shoppers, worried retailers, determined party planners and watchful transportation chiefs confront the growing likelihood of a major winter storm this weekend.
A big snowstorm and bad roads at the peak of the holiday shopping season could devastate the region's retailers in a year soured by recession. The Saturday before Christmas is typically the biggest shopping day of the season in Maryland, with Sunday usually coming in second, said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association.
"This is really a make-or-break weekend," he said. "Retailers are very, very nervous."
Forecasters issued a winter storm watch on Thursday for the entire state and for Delaware. It is effective from late today through late Saturday night, calling for heavy snow with accumulations of more than 5 inches.
"A lot can happen between now and then, but we are starting to see a lot happening in the Gulf with this system already, and even now it's looking impressive," said Steve Zubrick, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service's Sterling, Va., forecast office. Forecasters there were talking about accumulation rates of at least 5 inches in 12 hours, and 7 inches in 24 hours.
AccuWeather.com forecasters put their estimates at 8 to 10 inches, with as much as a foot in some spots across the Mid-Atlantic.
While that much snow would surely hamper travel, some businesses plan to celebrate with whoever makes it in.
The owners of Nouveau Contemporary Goods at Belvedere Square in North Baltimore said they'll serve champagne if it snows.
Snow "may prevent someone from wanting to drive to a mall, and instead walk over and explore this little treasure," reasoned co-owner Steve Appel. "I think it will be great for a place like Belvedere Square."
A dusting could even be good for shopping, said one retail analyst.
"If it snows only a little bit, it gets people in the Christmas spirit," said Britt Beemer whose company, America's Research Group, tracks consumer shopping habits.
While some weekend parties could be snuffed out by bad weather, those hired to provide the food and drink for them were determined to keep the work if they can.
At Biddle Street Catering, owner Karen Levy was checking the weather online.
The weekend before Christmas is one of the busiest of the year for Biddle Street. Losing any business to the snow would be tough. The firm has two parties to cater in Arlington, Va., and must drop off food at several locations in Baltimore on Saturday, starting with scrambled eggs for 75.
Levy planned to call clients early to see whether they want to go ahead with their events. If they are willing to brave the snow, so is Levy. "We have never turned anyone down because of the weather, and we've been in business since 1980," she said.
The snow prediction was especially bad news for David Horne, 32, of Middle River, who is moving all his household possessions, his wife and 3-year-old daughter into their new house on Saturday.
"There goes the new carpets and wood floors. Someone please say this is a joke," he said. With a 30-foot moving truck, many SUV-loads and four or five friends scheduled to help pull it off, he said, postponement "really isn't an option. We were really hoping it was gonna hold off."
Forecasters were watching the storm develop and move out of the northern Gulf of Mexico on Thursday after drenching the northern Gulf Coast. They expect it will intensify off the Carolinas late on Friday and make a run up the East Coast for the balance of the weekend, dropping snow from eastern Tennessee to New York City.
Snow is likely to develop in Central Maryland before dawn on Saturday. With plenty of cold air in place, forecasters expect the precipitation to fall as snow throughout the day, ending early Sunday.
After some clearing Sunday, Baltimore could see a different storm - an Alberta Clipper out of western Canada - drop another inch in the Interstate 95 corridor on Monday.
While some parts of the Baltimore region were coated with 4 or 5 inches of snow on Dec. 5, the official measurement station at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport received only about an inch - so anything more than that would constitute the biggest snowfall of the season so far. Five inches would make this the snowiest month since February 2007. A foot would make it the snowiest December in Baltimore since 1966 and the snowiest winter in four years.
Highway crews were watching the forecasts closely.
"We're monitoring," said Frank Murphy, a deputy director of transportation for Baltimore. "We are going to get something; we don't know how much."
If the snow does come, the city can call on more than 300 people to operate 263 plows, front loaders and other snow removal equipment to clear the city's streets. They'll also have 15,000 tons of salt to spread - main arteries first, then residential streets.
In Baltimore County, road crews will have 2,666 miles of road to keep passable. It's not cheap. Salting costs $106,000 an hour, and plowing costs $34,000 an hour, said David Fidler, a spokesman for the county's public works department.
"One phone call, and $100,000 is spent," Fidler said.
Business owners are counting on those road crews to clear paths to their doors.
"I think people today are more mobile than they were years ago," said Edward Steinberg, owner of J.S. Edwards men's apparel store in Pikesville. "With SUVs, people are a little more daring. If they know that they need to do some shopping, they will."
Martin's West catering hall plans to stay open if its two Saturday clients want to go ahead, said assistant sales manager Diane Bosse, who recalled catering two weddings during an ice storm a few years ago. "We had staff with four-wheel-drives who went out and picked up other staff, and we did the parties," she said.
The same can-do attitude prevailed at Charm City Cakes, which is scheduled to make elaborate wedding, birthday and anniversary cakes for Saturday events.
"We've got four-wheel-drive," said Charm City Cakes manager Mary Alice Yeskey. "We can do it."
The anniversary cake is for a club, Rams Head Live, which is celebrating its fifth year in business with a party for 1,800 Saturday night. Marketing director Sarah Sample said the show will go on.
"Rock doesn't stop for snow," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Annie Linskey and Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.
Baltimore's snowiest Decembers
1966: 20.4 inches
1904: 17.1 inches
1960: 15.6 inches
1932: 14.7 inches
1945: 12.2 inches
Source: National Weather Service
Data since 1883