Major winter storm blasts Va.; D.C. eludes wrath

4:13 PM, Mar 6, 2013   |    comments
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John Bacon, USA TODAY

McLEAN, Va. - A powerful winter storm swept in from the Midwest on Wednesday, pounding parts of Virginia with heavy snow but slipping through the nation's capital with a calling card of little more than wet streets from a rain-snow mix.

The threat of the storm was enough to shut down federal offices, close D.C.-area schools for hundreds of thousands of kids and snarl sections of the nation's air traffic for a third day.

The threat turned real in parts of Virginia that saw more than a foot of snow and some 170,000 utility customers without power. But the National Weather Service canceled its winter storm warning for Washington, saying only 1 or 2 inches of snow were likely before the storm passes Wednesday night.

Hours earlier, 5 to 10 inches had been forecast. Air temperatures remained a bit too warm to support the snow, weather service spokesman Chris Vaccaro said.

"Inside the Beltway, the snow drought continues," Vaccaro said. "We have had no significant snowfall since 2011. Snow lovers will have to wait."

Vaccaro said a storm from the Midwest swept through 16 states over three days before joining up with a new weather system off the Virginia coast. High winds added to the havoc -- and the possibility of power outages.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency, saying more than 170,000 utility customers were without power. Dominion Virginia Power, which serves about 2.4 million customers in Virginia and North Carolina, had almost 120,000 Virginia customers without power at the storm's peak.

Charlottesville, two hours outside Washington, was hit hard -- the University of Virginia shut down for the day. At Chris Cuthbert's 36-acre farm, more than a foot of snow was on the ground by mid-afternoon, and power was on and off. He, his wife Jebb and their six horses, three dogs and two cats rode out the storm at home.

"The horses actually got rowdy in the snow, but they settled down," said Cuthbert, 54, a retired engineer and semi-retired nurse. "I think we will be able to get out tomorrow, but definitely not today. That's fine. I live for this stuff."

More than 1,900 flights were canceled Wednesday, raising to almost 4,100 the number of flights that have been scratched across much of the nation since the storm began its eastward march, the tracker FlightStats reported.

At Washington Reagan National Airport, the cavernous main terminal was nearly empty Wednesday. Airlines began notifying passengers of mass cancellations long before the bad weather arrived, yet a few anxious passengers showed up anyway hoping for better news.

Joe Swiderski and Daniel Linary, 20-year-old sophomores at Broward College in Florida, just wrapped up a three-day tour of Washington. Their 10:30 a.m. flight to Fort Lauderdale was canceled, and they were rebooked on an 8 p.m. flight.

"We have a long wait, I guess,'' Swiderski said. "We were told there is a big shopping mall nearby, so we're headed there for a while. We'll see how it goes.''

The storm brought mostly a mix of rain and snow to the nation's capital. In Northwest Washington, a usually clogged commuter route leading to three city schools, American University and connections to the Washington Beltway was deserted Wednesday morning.

The large green space between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, usually filled with tourists even on cold days, was nearly deserted.

But the weather didn't stop Marianne McGhee, 51, and her mother Sally Madrid, 78, both of Cheyenne, Wyo., from walking around the National Mall. The two are visiting for a week while McGhee, an auditor for the Wyoming National Guard, takes a class. Her course was canceled Wednesday.

"We like the snow," said Madrid as large snowflakes melted onto her face and glasses. "We thought it'd be fun to be out in it. I was kind of shocked that you guys canceled everything. They would never ever have in Wyoming with weather like this."

McGhee said the two wanted to escape their hotel. "We had to go out and do something," she said.

The storm dropped up to 10 inches of snow on the Chicago area Tuesday, but by Wednesday airports and major roads were back to normal. The Cincinnati area, relatively spared, was digging out after anywhere from 3 to 7 inches.

The storm will sweep north into New Jersey and New York by Thursday, but shouldn't drop too much snow as it moves through the region, Vaccaro said.

However, current weather models have it stalling when it reaches the Atlantic, which could mean longer snowfall in New England.

"This evening and throughout the day tomorrow we are looking at the New York City area getting 2 to 4 inches of wet snow and gusty winds," Vaccaro said. "It will be a glancing blow."

Contributing: Kevin Johnson; Yamiche Alcindor; Cathy Lynn Grossman; Ben Mutzabaugh; Natalie DiBlasio; Associated Press

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