Snowstorm prompts state of emergency

Maryland is under a state of emergency as a winter storm that forecasters described as "extremely dangerous" brought potentially record-breaking snow totals and gale-force winds to the region.

Accumulation rates as high as 2 to 3 inches an hour were expected to bury the region in up to 2 feet of snow by daybreak Saturday. If the forecasters are right, another 5 to 9 inches of snow is possible before the precipitation ends Saturday evening, with total accumulations of 20 to 30 inches, or more, predicted.

Blizzard warnings were posted through 10 p.m. Saturday for the western shore of the Chesapeake, from Anne Arundel County south to St. Mary's County. Falling snow and winds of more than 35 mph there early Saturday were expected to reduce visibilities to less than a quarter-mile before easing later in the morning.

The weather service added southern Baltimore, Harford, Charles and Prince George's counties, plus Baltimore City and the District of Columbia, to the blizzard warnings Friday night. As of 11 p.m., Kent, Talbot, Caroline and Queen Anne's counties had also joined the list.

"This extremely dangerous storm is expected to produce record snowfall for the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas," the weather service said in a Winter Storm Warning issued for the entire state. "Travel conditions ... will be extremely hazardous and life threatening. Help your state and local government first responders and transportation agencies by staying off the roads."

Before the first flake stuck Friday, schools across the state closed or sent students home early. Many employers let workers telecommute or punch out early. Airlines canceled flights in and out of Baltimore, and Marylanders everywhere stocked up on food, shovels, beer and other essentials in anticipation of a long weekend at home in deep snow.

All day long, forecasts from the National Weather Service and other sources escalated from the 1- to 2-foot range, into 2- to 3-foot territory. If they're right, the totals could threaten all-time snow records in both Washington and Baltimore.

Baltimore's biggest snowstorm to date was the 28.2 inches that fell Feb. 15-18, 2003. Washington's target is the 28-inch "Knickerbocker Storm" in 1922. That storm was named for a Washington theater in which 98 people perished when the roof collapsed under the snow's weight.

What was stacking up to be an historic winter storm originated in the North Pacific, crossed the continent and picked up loads of moisture Friday from the Gulf of Mexico. Overnight, it was expected to "bomb out" -- intensify -- off the Carolina coast and throw the equivalent of several inches of rain onto the mid-Atlantic states. Some bands of intense snowfall were forecast to drop 2 to 3 inches an hour on some locations.

None of that was apparent during the daytime Friday.

Light snow began to fall late in the morning. It arrived first in the Washington area, gradually spreading to Baltimore by 11 a.m., and later to the Eastern Shore and points north.

With surface temperatures above freezing, little was sticking at first. Some Marylanders were quick to pronounce the much-ballyhooed storm a bust.

"Count me in the 'dud' camp," said Bryan Grimaldi, in a comment to The Baltimore Sun's online weather blog. "It's been snowing for several hours in Elkridge, not a single flake is on the ground; it's all melting. My prediction: 2 to 6 inches of slush tonight after dark, then done."

But meteorologists and government officials noted that the snow was sticking to our south, with 2 inches on the ground near Dulles Airport by mid-afternoon.

Temperatures would eventually cool, they promised, the snow rates would increase, the water on the ground would freeze and be covered by snow as the storm intensified overnight.

"Tonight into Saturday morning will be about as dangerous as winter weather can get around here," said Chris Strong, the NWS warning coordination meteorologist for Baltimore and Washington.

A liberal leave policy was invoked for state workers, giving them the option to head for home early to avoid becoming snared in a slippery evening rush hour. Many commuters did appear to head home early. Traffic volumes on the Beltway swelled soon after 1 p.m. But pavements remained just wet late into the afternoon, and highway speeds appeared normal.

Gov. Martin O'Malley joined the chorus urging Marylanders to "curl up with a book and stay off the roads," and let highway crews do their jobs.

"It's going to be a big snow," the governor told a news conference at the state highway operations center in Hanover. "We are prepared to deal with whatever Mother Nature throws at us."

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency ordered Level 3 staffing at its State Emergency Operations Center in Reisterstown. About 20 MEMA employees and representatives from a dozen state agencies were on duty, overseeing storm responses by law enforcement, health, medical and transportation services.

By declaring a state of emergency, O'Malley gave the state the flexibility to draw on National Guard units to assist local first responders. The declaration could also clear the way for Maryland to receive federal emergency assistance if it meets the threshold of 28 inches of snowfall.

"We hope our federal partners measure in a snowdrift," O'Malley said.

MARC trains and Maryland Transit Administration buses were dispatched early Friday afternoon to help get early commuters home safely.

State Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley said the MTA light rail and Metro subway would run after-hours "snow trains" in order to prevent a buildup of snow on the tracks.

At BWI-Marshall Airport, although runways were merely wet into the afternoon, commercial airlines canceled the majority of their arrivals and departures after 2:30 p.m. Friday in anticipation of the storm, according to Jonathan Dean, spokesman for the Maryland Aviation Administration.

"The airlines did a good job ... working to re-book customers whose itineraries may have been affected," he said. Those with Saturday reservations may be stuck. "To this point the airlines have indicated they do not plan any commercial flight activity."

That could change as the storm develops, Dean said. Meanwhile, airport crews were expected to work through the night to keep at least one major runway open, if possible. "That's the goal," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.