Light snow causes DC traffic nightmare ahead of ‘paralyzing winter storm’

A combination of heavier-than-expected snow and untreated roads plunged commuters in the nation’s capital into a vision of traffic hell Wednesday, two days before forecasters warned a “potentially paralyzing winter storm” would strike the region. 

Wednesday’s weather system only dropped between half an inch and an inch of snow, but that was enough to cause accidents and gridlock across the area.

“This is an unbelievable situation. It’s just a dangerous situation, and the authorities are doing absolutely nothing. I just don’t understand,” motorist Robert Fletcher told The Washington Post in a phone interview. Fletcher told the Post that it had taken him four hours to travel half a mile from his D.C. law office to Interstate 66 in Arlington County, Va. 

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser asked residents to stay off the roads if possible so they could be treated by crews. Virginia State Police told Fox 5 they responded to 163 traffic crashes across the state Wednesday. A trooper working on a crash on Interstate 495 in northern Virginia was struck by another vehicle, police say. He was transported to the hospital with minor injuries.

Authorities in Virginia and Maryland admitted their roads had not been pretreated before the snow began falling Wednesday. Maryland officials explained to the Post that the forecast had not called for more than a snow squall, while Virginia authorities said the forecast temperatures had been so low they were worried the treatment might freeze on roads.

Even President Obama’s motorcade was affected, as it slipped and skidded its way to the White House from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The trip, which normally lasts approximately 25 minutes, took three times as long Wednesday night. 

Earlier in the day, Bowser had addressed the District of Columbia’s preparations for the larger storm, which the National Weather Service forecasts will bring heavy, “perhaps crippling” snow and life-threatening blizzard conditions across the northern mid-Atlantic region Friday night through Saturday night.

Bowser said the city had requested Humvees from the National Guard to reach isolated people and places if necessary.

“If this is a blizzard and we have sustained winds and people lose power, that would be my biggest concern,” Bowser told reporters. “We can move the snow. We will move the snow.”

Beginning Thursday, blizzard and winter storm watches will begin to take effect across parts of Maryland, Washington, Virginia, West Virginia and Arkansas. The storm will also bring ice and freezing rain to Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky starting Thursday, NWS meteorologist Rich Otto said. 

Further north, road crews and hardware stores in eastern Pennsylvania were gearing up Wednesday ahead of the potential winter storm.

The National Weather Service predicts that 12 to 16 inches of snow could come down between Friday night and Sunday morning around the Interstate 95 corridor. As much as a foot of snow is possible for Philadelphia’s northern suburbs.

Mitchell Gaines, of the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, New Jersey said people should be prepared for strong winds, heavy, wet snow and power outages.

Forecasters say most of New Jersey will likely see several inches of snow.

Back in the D.C. area, residents began stocking up on groceries and other supplies. Simon Martinez, 48, felt fortunate to find a new snow shovel at a True Value hardware store in northwest Washington. He tried a nearby Home Depot first, without success.

“It’s crazy there,” he said, adding that they were also out of salt.

In Baltimore, Director of Emergency Management Bob Maloney urged residents to make sure they have enough water to last for three days, along with a working flashlight and a battery-operated radio.

All major airlines have issued waivers for travel over the weekend, allowing passengers to rebook onto earlier or later flights to avoid the storms. The airports included vary by airline but include some cities in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia all the way up the coast to New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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