WASHINGTON – A blizzard battered the Mid-Atlantic region Saturday, with emergency crews struggling to keep pace with the heavy, wet snow that has piled up on roadways, toppled trees and left thousands without electricity.
Officials urged people to huddle at home and out of the way of emergency crews. Forecasters said the storm could be the biggest for the nation's capital in modern history.
A record 2 1/2 feet or more was predicted for Washington. As of early Saturday, 10 inches of snow was reported at the White House, while parts of Maryland and West Virginia were buried under more than 20 inches. Forecasters expected snowfall rates to increase, up to 2 inches per hour through Saturday morning.
Blizzard warnings were issued for the District of Columbia, Baltimore, parts of New Jersey and Delaware, and some areas west of the Chesapeake Bay.
"Things are fairly manageable, but trees are starting to come down," said D.C. fire department spokesman Pete Piringer, whose agency responded to some of the falling trees. No injuries were reported.
Airlines canceled flights, churches called off weekend services and people wondered if they would be stuck at home for several days in a region ill-equipped to deal with so much snow.
"D.C. traditionally panics when it comes to snow. This time, it may be more justifiable than most times," said Becky Shipp, who was power-walking in Arlington, Va., Friday. "I am trying to get a walk in before I am stuck with just the exercise machine in my condo."
The region's second snowstorm in less than two months brought heavy, wet snow and strong winds that forecasters warned could gust near 60 mph in some areas along the coast.
Hundreds of thousands of customers across the region had lost electricity and more outages were expected to be reported because of all the downed power lines. A hospital fire in D.C. sent about three dozen patients scurrying from their rooms to safety in a basement. The blaze started when a snow plow truck caught fire near the building.
Authorities blamed the storm for hundreds of accidents, including a deadly tractor-trailer wreck that killed a father and son who had stopped to help someone in Virginia. Some area hospitals asked people with four-wheel-drive vehicles to volunteer to pick up doctors and nurses to take them to work.
The country band Rascal Flatts postponed a concert Saturday in Ohio, but the Atlanta Thrashers-Washington Capitals NHL game went on as planned.
In Dover, Del., Shanita Foster lugged three gallons of water out of a Dollar General store.
"That's all we need right now. We've got everything else," said Foster, adding that she was ready with candles in case the power went out.
Shoppers jammed aisles and emptied stores of milk, bread, shovels, driveway salt and other supplies. Many scrambling for food and supplies were too late.
"Our shelves are bare," said Food Lion front-end manager Darlene Baboo in Dover. "This is just unreal."
Metro, the transit system the Washington area is heavily dependent upon, closed all but the underground rail service and suspended bus service.
Maryland's public transportation also shut down Saturday, including Baltimore's Metro. Maryland Transit Administration spokeswoman Jawauna Greene said the underground portion of the Metro could reopen later Saturday but it depended on the weather conditions.
"We have trees on the overhead wires, trees on train tracks. We can't get anything out," she said.
Amtrak also canceled several of its Northeast Corridor trains Saturday, and New Jersey's transit authority expected to suspend bus service. As much as a foot of snow was reported in parts of that state.
Across the region, transportation officials deployed thousands of trucks and crews and had hundreds of thousands of tons of salt at the ready. Several states exhausted or expected to exhaust their snow removal budgets.
Maryland budgeted about $60 million, and had already spent about $50 million, Gov. Martin O'Malley said. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has been in office less than a month, declared his second snow emergency, authorizing state agencies to assist local governments. As of early Saturday, some parts of Virginia had already seen more than 18 inches of snow.
The snow comes less than two months after a Dec. 19 storm dumped more than 16 inches on Washington. Snowfalls of this magnitude — let alone two in one season — are rare in the area. According to the National Weather Service, Washington has gotten more than a foot of snow only 13 times since 1870.
The heaviest on record was 28 inches in January 1922. The biggest snowfall for the Washington-Baltimore area is believed to have been in 1772, before official records were kept, when as much as 3 feet fell, which George Washington and Thomas Jefferson penned in their diaries.
In Washington, tourists made the best of it Friday, spending their days in museums or venturing out to see the monuments before the snow got too heavy.
A group of 13 high school students from Cincinnati was stranded in D.C. when a student government conference they planned to attend was canceled — after they had already arrived. So they went sightseeing.
At the Smithsonian's natural history museum, Caitlin Lavon, 18, and Hannah Koch, 17, took pictures of each other with the jaws of a great white shark in the Ocean Hall.
"Our parents are all freaking out, sending texts to be careful," Koch said. "Being from Ohio, I don't think I've ever seen that much snow at once."