Snow storm creates havoc on Baltimore roads

Quick-falling snow storm hits Baltimore region.

A fast-moving snowstorm hit the region Saturday, creating gridlock, stranding drivers caught off-guard by its severity and causing accidents on highways and local streets.

Crews said they were hoping to get streets mostly cleared Saturday night, but the National Weather Service in a winter storm warning said driving conditions could be hazardous into Sunday morning.

At least 10 inches of snow were reported in some areas, including Bel Air and Ellicott City by the evening. Bryan Jackson, a meteorologist with the weather service, said the snow was set to turn to sleet and freezing rain into the evening hours Saturday. By midnight, the temperature was expected to rise, and precipitation would turn to "plain rain," he said. The rain will continue until about 7 a.m. Sunday, but some sunshine is expected in the afternoon.

It will be a short break from winter's wrath. Temperatures will plunge below freezing Sunday night and stay there for two days, which could make driving treacherous again. And the city health department extended the Code Blue alert until Wednesday, expanding services to the homeless. State Highway Administration officials said they will continue monitoring the roads conditions throughout the day Sunday.

"We encourage people to not even venture out early" Sunday, until checking road conditions first, said agency spokesman David Buck. "I wouldn't expect this rain will come close to making all this snow go away. So while we are likely to have dry and bare pavement later Sunday, we certainly can have the potential to melt and refreeze," he said. "We're cognizant of the fact that is supposed to get very very cold on the back side of this warm day."

The slippery concrete on Saturday created ice rink conditions as cars slid into medians and bounced off interstate walls. It didn't take long for highways to become parking lots. The impassible roads forced some drivers to abandon their cars and walk.

"You're just kind of stuck until you get through," said Ahmed Hasan, a manager at the Fleet Street Kitchen. His usual 20-minute commute turned into three hours on Interstate 83. "This is probably one of the worst times I've seen. Nothing has been treated," Hasan said, adding that he didn't see "a single truck, or plow in the three hours I've been on the road. Nothing has been done."

The SHA started to deploy crews between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. Buck said the snow "came down fast and furious" and made it hard for 2,400 pieces of equipment to treat the roads.

He said that many people appeared to underestimate the intensity of the storm. "Because the whole Baltimore region was hit equally hard," it was difficult to address the problems quickly. He said it was too early on Saturday to make predictions for Sunday.

"It will be an uphill battle until we at get people out on the road home safely," Buck said. "We need Mother Nature to cooperate. We need people to not venture out later and think it's going to be OK. It isn't supposed to be until the wee hours that it will change over to rain."

The agency urged truckers to move the big rigs into any park-and-ride facility across Maryland. Drivers should not be on the road unless it's an emergency, SHA Administrator Melinda B. Peters said.

"Making sure the citizens of our state are kept informed and out of harm's way will always be our No. 1 priority, especially during winter storms like this one," said Gov. Larry Hogan. "We are strongly encouraging Marylanders to use common sense and to avoid driving during this storm."

Social media sites erupted Saturday with photos of clogged arteries. Other photos showed emergency responders helping drivers; state, city and county agencies used social media to warn drivers about bad areas and urged them to stay off the roads.

Connor Scott, spokesman with the Baltimore City Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, said that road conditions remained poor Saturday night. He said Interstate 83 southbound near Northern Parkway saw a number of cars get stuck. Once traffic was cleared up in that area, he said crews could redirect their resources to other areas of the city. Scott said I-83 was especially bad because of the volume of traffic. The gridlock was due to "almost exclusively people getting stuck, very few accidents," he said.

"It just came so quickly and earlier than anticipated," Scott said. "Conditions aren't going to improve until tomorrow morning. At that point we do expect to have cleared most of this."

City transportation officials reported that snow crews had used 1,924 tons of salt by Saturday night, and a dozen tow trucks were out working to remove disabled vehicles from the roads.

In addition to I-83, Interstate 95 saw problems. All southbound lanes were closed at Interstate 395 and Caton Avenue around 2:30 p.m. for almost two hours because of several disabled vehicles, the Maryland Transportation Authority reported. A vehicle fire on I-95 northbound near Dundalk Avenue also closed lanes in the afternoon.

Liberty Road between St. Lukes Lane and Patterson Avenue was briefly closed when a bridge joint was struck by a plow, state highway officials said. A joint between the bridge deck and surface pulled up when it was hit by a plow, Buck said. Crews have patched the area with a steel plate and reopened the road, he said.

Jill Wesko, who lives in Mount Washington, managed to get her Subaru off I-83 when traffic halted. She watched cars spin out of control and get stuck in the snow. But she couldn't get beyond Falls Road and Northern Parkway.

She described the area as "refugee city" as drivers walked away from cars. She said she got the last parking spot at Green Fields Nursery. She and her basset hound, Jasper, soon joined other people hustling along Northern Parkway to get home.

She said she spotted people helping others push cars. Other honked and waved at the duo. Wesko said she wished she had stayed home, but she didn't realize the storm would hit so fast.

"I though it was just going to be that weird snow fall like last Saturday," she said. "I can't believe that there were so many people on the road."

City officials said they received numerous reports of vehicles being stranded and struck, especially at hilly areas.

City crews started treating the streets with about 250 pieces of equipment around 11 a.m. Department of Transportation Director William Johnson said not all roads will be fully clear until Sunday morning. He warned drivers to stay off the roads until they are cleared.

"The roads are going to continue to be bad," even with constant salting and plowing, Johnson said.

At Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport, a team of more than 300 airport and contract employees were deployed for snow removal efforts Saturday morning and remained throughout the day, said spokesman Jonathan Dean.

He said that there were "widespread cancellations" Saturday and that travelers should expect some flight cancellations on Sunday. "Travelers should check their airlines for update flight information," he said.

Several people lost power Saturday night: about 1,200 customers in Anne Arundel County and close to 700 residents in the Hampstead area, according to BGE's website.

About 6.1 inches of snow had fallen at BWI Airport by 7 p.m, according to the weather service. The service's weather spotters reported about 9 inches in Columbia and 8.5 in the Pimlico area of the city, 9.5 in Essex and 7.5 inches in Oella.

After the brief warmup, chilly temperatures will return with an overnight low of 17 expected Sunday into Monday.

mpuente@baltsun.com

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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