HAGERSTOWN, Md. — A powerful snowstorm charged into the nation's capital today, dumping heavy, wet flakes on the Mid-Atlantic region, snapping tree limbs and knocking out power to about 100,000 people.
Federal offices in D.C. and schools in the region closed ahead of the storm. Commuter trains were canceled or on an abbreviated schedule, leaving the typically bustling city streets quiet. Forecasters warned more power outages were the biggest problem from a storm expected to dump up to 10 inches of snow in Washington and as much as 8 inches in Baltimore by later today.
Minor tidal flooding was possible along parts of the Delaware and New Jersey coast, the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay and the lower Potomac River, the National Weather Service said.
The storm pummeled the nation's mid-section and headed east. In Virginia, more than 200 car crashes had been reported. In Pennsylvania, many parts of the state had 4 to 6 inches of snow.
By mid-morning, Washington had heavy snow with strong winds, but not much was sticking to wet roads or sidewalks. Baltimore was breezy and overcast with rain.
The storm was dubbed a “snowquester,” a play off the wonky “sequester” term used to describe the $85 billion in cuts from federal budgets over the next six months. The cuts went into effect after President Barack Obama and Congress failed to reach a deal to reduce the national deficit.
While lawmakers were at work inside the halls of Congress, elsewhere the “snowquester” shut down government offices, just as the budget cuts threatened to do.
Washington resident Sheri Sable, out walking her two dogs in light rain, said her office was closed. She said the nation's capital gets spooked by snow; even the dog park she frequents failed to open at 7 a.m.
“They just say that it might snow and the whole city shuts down,” she said.
The storm brought around 10 inches of snow to weather-hardened Chicago and closed schools in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, and canceled more than 1,100 flights at Chicago's two major airports.
Hundreds more flights were canceled today at Dulles and Reagan National airports in the Washington area, according to FlightAware.com.
While there were no initial reports of major accidents in the Chicago area, a semi-trailer slid off a snow-covered interstate in western Wisconsin, killing one person. The search for a second person, believed to be a passenger, was suspended overnight.
Still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, the Jersey Shore, along with other parts of the Northeast, prepared for another possible hit today and Thursday. 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. Those areas could get 2 to 4 inches of snow. A coastal flood warning was in effect until Thursday morning from Sandy Hook to Cape Cod.
More than 11 inches of snow had fallen in the western Maryland town of Westernport. The snow was moving eastward, with the heaviest snowfall expected in Washington from late morning through early evening, said Jim Lee, a weather service meteorologist in Sterling, Va. He said snowfall amounts in the Washington-Baltimore area could vary greatly over a short distance.
“Over a course of, say, 20 to 30 miles, you may see a range from a few inches up to a foot of snow,” Lee said.
Intensifying snow and high winds could reduce visibility, making driving hazardous.
“We're urging folks not to travel today and to leave the driving to our professional snow plow drivers,” Maryland State Highway Administration spokeswoman Lora Rakowski said.
The closure of many schools and offices helped ease traffic in the District of Columbia. Some Metro transit system bus routes were suspended or detoured, though trains were running on a normal schedule — albeit with an “anemic” passenger load, said spokesman Dan Stessel.
“You have your pick of seats on any Metrorail trains you board,” Stessel said.
In Virginia, the storm was expected to dip along the coast and dump moisture-laden snow inland totaling a foot in the Blue Ridge Mountains and up to 21 inches in higher elevations.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell directed agencies to allow nonessential employees to work remotely or to “be generous” in approving leave requests for workers who live in regions under a storm watch or warning.
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.