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Frozen shut

A powerful snowstorm delays or cancels flights all along the eastern seaboard.

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 18, 2003
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WASHINGTON -- The snow started fluttering down Saturday on a capital still jittery in the wake of a heightened terror alert. When the epic storm ended Monday, the city and its fears seemed entombed in a beautiful white calm.

The great snowstorm of 2003 dumped some 2 feet of snow on the Washington area, one of the largest accumulations in local history. Only twice before in the last 150 years has a storm left more than 24 inches of snow in the region, the National Weather Service reported.

There were three-foot drifts in the city and accumulations of up to 35 inches in parts of northern Virginia. Garrett County, in western Maryland, was overwhelmed by 49 inches.

Anticipating that it will take days to dig out from the snow in and around Washington, federal and local governments and school districts announced they would be closed today. Airports all along the eastern seaboard shut down or were at a virtual standstill. In New York, John F. Kennedy International canceled most domestic flights, and LaGuardia, which was closed Monday, will remain so indefinitely.

Reagan Washington National Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport didn't operate Monday; Reagan was scheduled to start flights at 7 a.m. today. Washington Dulles International Airport operated with two runways. Southbound Amtrak trains were canceled.

"I love it!" said Meir Sherer, 36, as he squatted on a sidewalk to photograph a Washington Post newspaper box in a drift of snow. The headline through the box's window read, "Area Closed on Account of Snow."

"I'm stuck down here," explained Sherer, an educator from Boston in town to visit his sister. He had planned to return Monday. But with the storm headed Boston's way and Washington area airports closed, he was happily biding his time.

"Hopefully, I'll get home tomorrow," he said.

The storm was part of a weather system that left rain and mudslides in the South and blizzard conditions in the Northeast, crippling travel across the eastern United States. Officials in the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland -- lately consumed with contingency planning for a terrorist attack -- declared a snow emergency instead.

Instead of traffic noise, people who ventured out in the Washington region heard the scrape, scrape, scrape of snow shovels. For some homeowners, though, the accumulation was so great they gave up trying to clear steps, sidewalks and driveways.

Pedestrians didn't seem to mind. They just walked down the middle of the plowed main thoroughfares, empty save for the occasional SUV.

The federal Washington's Birthday holiday lessened the disruption. Federal workers and District of Columbia public schools had already planned to have the day off.

But public schools in the Virginia suburbs were supposed to be open to make up for previous days lost to snow-related closings. With the makeup day now lost, suburban cul-de-sacs filled with rumors of a shortened spring break, or -- the kids' preferred option -- an emergency bill in the Virginia General Assembly to shorten the school year.

In northwest Washington, Scott Wiskowski joined her neighbors on a dog-walking expedition. They stayed in the street, following a tire-track groove. Suddenly, one of the neighbors yelled, "Look out!"

A massive yellow Hummer -- a kind of SUV on steroids -- came tearing down the snowy street. Wiskowski jumped with the dogs into a hip-deep drift while her neighbor fell down. But they were able to laugh about it later.

Dog walkers, in fact, had some of the best snow stories to tell.

In the Chevy Chase neighborhood in Washington, Philip Brach was out shoveling snow when his neighbor, walking her dog, stopped to chat. The Labrador looked puzzled, he said. Then it dawned on them: The dog was looking for its favorite fire hydrant, now hidden completely by snow.

On Capitol Hill, people who had been shoveling snow all day later set up outdoor grills in the street for a hot dog and hamburger party, said Ruth Wasem.

But another Capitol Hill resident, Tracy Chambers, had been frozen inside her house on Saturday. The snow and ice blocked both her front and back doors.

She finally got the attention of a neighbor by pounding on her storm door and yelling, "Help! Help! I can't get out." It took the neighbor about 30 minutes to free Chambers. He used an ice pick to clear her doorstep.

Several hospitals reported that pregnant women were arriving before their contractions started, fearing they might not make it to the hospital in time if the baby started to come.

"They're just kind of hanging around here," said Katherine Hughes, spokeswoman for Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va.

Official Washington also felt the effects of the snowstorm. President Bush was forced to cancel a visit to the Smithsonian Institution, just a few blocks from the White House. But he did keep an Oval Office appointment with the president of Latvia.

Outside a shopping mall in northwest Washington, Benny Lee, 54, used a borrowed shovel to chisel his truck out of its parking spot on a snowy side street. The Hyattsville, Md., resident wore a suit, overcoat and plastic bags around his dress shoes.

The snow had trapped Lee, an auditor for a real estate management company, at his workplace Sunday. His employer put him up in a hotel.

"I didn't come prepared," Lee said. "That's why I've got to get home."

-- Times staff writers Bill Adair and Sara Fritz contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press and the Cox News Service.

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