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Posted at 7:42 PM ET, 01/27/2011

In Montgomery, nature has final say

By Michael Laris

More than 12 hours before the sleet and freezing rain began to fall Wednesday afternoon, Montgomery officials were on a 3 a.m. regional conference call.

The Council of Governments call is meant to help coordinate with federal officials so the region can try to make decisions in concert. The forecast was pretty clear, even then – the storm would be going strong during the Wednesday evening rush.

By 4 a.m., county officials had mobilized a fleet of 175 county trucks to treat roads countywide.

By 5:26 a.m., Montgomery officials sent urgent word to residents signed up for weather alerts. Residents were warned: “The precipitation will be primarily snow which will mix with rain and sleet during mid day. Forecasted total snow accumulations are in the 4" to 8"
range with the heaviest snow falling between 4:00 pm today and midnight.”

Shortly after noon, Montgomery emergency officials watching the storm sent county government workers notice that they were free to leave at 2 p.m. so they wouldn’t be driving in the worst of it.

By 2 p.m., hundreds of additional contract vehicles were in place as planned, ready to plow, county officials said.

Then, after 3:30 p.m., things got ugly.

An icy buildup of precipitation covered the roads across hundreds of square miles, and then was disguised by a fast-forming blanket of snow. Their plans ran into a bad mix of nature and driver behavior.

Drivers had to deal with over “one and a half inches of granular material covered by snow,” said Keith Compton, Montgomery’s chief of highway services.

“The driver behavior … was as if they were driving on snow. That, of course, resulted in havoc,” Compton said. “They couldn’t negotiate the weather conditions, and they got stuck.”

People abandoned their cars. Things unraveled. But Compton said he wouldn’t have changed county plans.

“It couldn’t have taken place at a worse time – 4 p.m., when all the businesses were letting out. You’re at the heart of the rush hour, and things just began to stack up,” Compton said.

County officials said police escorted county trucks to several areas so they could address problem areas causing massive backups. Still, drivers reported horrid commutes along Colesville Road that at times were longer than a full work day.

Maryland state officials, who are responsible for maintaining Colesville Road, said they used all of their resources trying to reduce the impact of bad conditions that kept getting worse.

“We were seeing backups not just on Colesville. The interstates were backed up. It was very challenging,” said Charlie Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

They dragged away jackknifed tractor trailers and cut through a tree that was knocked across the Beltway near River Road.

“It just complicated things. Our plow trucks are blocked by the tree now…Our salt trucks are stuck in the same gridlock as everyone else. Not trying to make excuses, but this is simply what happened yesterday,” Gischlar said.

By Michael Laris  | January 27, 2011; 7:42 PM ET
Categories:  Maryland, Weather  
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