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Coming snowstorm brings back memories of '03

For many Northern Virginia residents, news of this weekend's fast-approaching winter weather brought back memories of the blizzard of 2003, the last big snowstorm to hit the region. For public works departments across the District, Maryland and Virginia, those memories aren't so great.

Unlike Boston, Philadelphia and New York, the Washington area had a rough go of it over Presidents Day weekend nearly seven years ago. At points, snow fell at a rate of about an inch per hour and ice blanketed the region, snarling traffic, delaying Metrorail trains and commuter buses and leaving many residential neighborhoods snowbound. Some residents took the extraordinary step of shoveling snow off public roads.

Days later, the snow gave way to flooding.

In Alexandria, the sewer system backed up, causing street and basement flooding. In the Del Ray area of the city, manhole covers could be seen floating above the street. In Leesburg, the roofs of a Wal-Mart and Kohl's department store started sagging, prompting emergency workers to fear a collapse, and more than 125 residents of a nearby nursing home were evacuated when water started pouring through the roof.

Water and wind knocked out power to thousands in Northern Virginia, the District, Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Maryland and the District also struggled with road closures, delays and frustrated residents.

So what's different this year? In short, better technology and more money, at least for Virginians.

Virginia transportation officials have started using sophisticated anti-icing chemicals, including salt brine, magnesium chloride and calcium chloride, which were unavailable back in 2003.

Tanker trucks were out coating major roads on Thursday in anticipation of this weekend's storm, said Jeff Caldwell, a VDOT spokesman. The liquid chemical mixture bonds with the pavement, creating a type of barrier between the road and snow and ice. Officials tested those chemicals during pilot programs in Roanoke and Richmond but began using them in full force in Northern Virginia after a particularly bad snowstorm in February 2008.

Also, high-tech sensors have been installed in Northern Virginia to measure ground temperature and VDOT workers have been equipped with hand-held thermometers to measure how cold the pavement is getting. That's in response to an ice storm last year that closed down the Springfield Interchange.

You can thank VDOT's nearly $80 million snow-removal budget for some of those advances, plus an additional $14 million earmarked for privatized road maintenance contracts.

Anna K. Nissinen, a Fairfax County spokeswoman, also said that with the county's 911 center now housed with the Virginia Department of Transportation's Smart Traffic Center in the McConnell Public Safety Operations Center, residents can expect quicker response times by emergency crews.

The operations center is essentially a 24/7 control room where representatives of all of the regional agencies can compare notes and dispatch resources.

But Virginia residents shouldn't expect too much in the way of quick and easy access to neighborhood roads, Nissinen warns.

"Their primary focus will be the main arterial roads and some work will also be done in the neighborhoods," Nissinen said. "However, with the amount of snowfall expected, you will not see the neighborhoods getting clear for some time."

And in Northern Virginia, with 16,000 lane miles to clear, a heavy amount of snow could keep workers busy for some time.

By Derek Kravitz  |  December 18, 2009; 3:34 PM ET
Categories:  Derek Kravitz  
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