WASHINGTON – A winter storm marched into the Mid-Atlantic region Wednesday, dumping nearly two feet of snow in some places and knocking out power to about 250,000 homes and businesses. It largely spared the nation's capital, which was expecting much worse and had all but shut down.
Officials in Washington didn't want a repeat of 2011, when a rush-hour snowstorm stranded commuters for hours, so they told people to stay off the roads and gave workers the day off. Dubbed the "snowquester," the storm closed government offices, just as the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester were expected to do.
The storm pummeled the nation's midsection on Tuesday, killing at least four people in weather-related traffic accidents. It was forecast to head to the northeast on Thursday, bringing strong winds, more snow and the possibility of coastal flooding to New England.
In Washington, where as much as 10 inches had been forecast, the storm did little but drop harmless snowflakes that rapidly melted amid warmer-than-expected temperatures.
"They just say that it might snow and the whole city shuts down," said Sheri Sable, who was out walking her two dogs in light rain and marveled at how even the dog park she frequents failed to open at 7 a.m.
There were bigger problems elsewhere in the region, though.
Lashing winds blew off part of the roof of a Stone Harbor, N.J., condominium complex and Ocean City officials advised residents to move their cars to higher ground in preparation of possible flooding. Maryland's Bay Bridge, which connects Maryland's Eastern shore with the Baltimore-Washington region, closed in both directions, because of wind gusts of up to 60 mph.
A tractor-trailer overturned on the bridge and leaned against the guardrail. Kelly Kiley, an interior designer, was driving on the span soon after the accident.
"The travel on the bridge was extremely scary," Kiley said. "The crosswinds were terrible. Some of the taller box trucks were swaying."
The bridge reopened Wednesday evening.
In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency and about 50 National Guard soldiers were sent out to help clear roads. Up to 20 inches of snow piled up in central and western parts of the state. More than 200,000 people in Virginia alone were without power and another 40,000 in New Jersey were in the dark. Hundreds of wrecks were reported around the region.
"Over the next 12 hours, as the storm churns up the coast quite slowly, we expect a lot more heavy wet snow, we expect heavy winds and that is a dangerous situation," McDonnell said at an afternoon briefing. "So stay off the roads, stay inside, enjoy the day off."
In Richmond, most commuters appeared to be headed home by midday with the exception of Clint Davis, an attorney who was needed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
"Unless they canceled court, I had to be here," said Davis, who was wearing a hooded slicker over his suit to shield himself from gobs of snow blown from trees. "I'll be here for two or three hours and come out to a snow-covered car."
Some communities in Washington's outer suburbs saw significant accumulation too, including in Loudoun County, which had 9 inches in some places.
In Sterling, Va., a glaze of slush and snow coated major roads and side streets, but traffic was relatively light and plow trucks passed through repeatedly. Many retailers were closed. Only a handful of customers patronized the Glory Days Grill. Carolyn Donahue was working from home and trekked out with her husband, Tom, for a lunch break without any trouble on slushy but passable roads.
"I don't consider this a big storm," he said.
Downtown Washington was unusually quiet. Officials eager to avoid a repeat of 2011 pre-emptively shut down federal offices and canceled public schools. Non-emergency federal employees were treated to a paid snow day for the number of hours they were scheduled to work.
Some congressional hearings were postponed, but the House managed to approve legislation to prevent a government shutdown on March 27 and President Barack Obama was set to have dinner with GOP senators at a hotel on Wednesday night.
"So far, knock on wood, we've dodged on this one," said D.C. Homeland Security director Chris Geldart. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that it remains the way it's been."
The Baltimore-Washington area's last major snowstorm struck Jan. 26, 2011. It hit Washington during the evening rush hour, causing some motorists to be stuck in traffic nearly overnight. It dropped 5 inches on Washington and 7.8 inches on Baltimore, knocked out power to about 320,000 homes and contributed to six deaths. The federal government later changed its policies to allow workers to leave their offices sooner or to work from home if major storms are expected.
The current storm led to at least four deaths. A semi-trailer slid off a snow-covered interstate in western Wisconsin, killing two people. A central Indiana woman died when a semi-trailer plowed into her car after she lost control merging onto the highway, and a man from Columbia City in northeast Indiana was killed when his snowmobile left the road, headed across a field and crashed into a wire fence.
The storm brought around 10 inches of snow to weather-hardened Chicago on Tuesday, closing schools and canceling more than 1,100 flights at the city's two major airports.
Hundreds more flights were canceled Wednesday at Dulles and Reagan National airports in the Washington area, according to FlightAware.com.
In Pennsylvania and Ohio, many areas had 4 to 6 inches of snow. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for the Philadelphia area and parts of central Pennsylvania through Thursday morning.
Still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, the Jersey Shore prepared for another hit. The storm should bring rain and snow, but one of the biggest problems could be flooding in areas where dunes were washed away and many damaged homes still sit open and exposed.
Associated Press writers Alex Dominguez in Baltimore; Jessica Gresko, Ben Nuckols and Brett Zongker in Washington; David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Md.; Wayne Parry in Long Beach Township, N.J.; Steve Szkotak in Richmond, Va.; Don Babwin and Jason Keyser in Chicago and Kevin Wang in Madison, Wis., contributed to this report.