Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey
For a week they warned us. The Big One was coming, the blizzard to end all blizzards. At least until the next one, anyway. Television meteorologists are sometimes accused of over-hype, but that was not the case for this epic weather event.
The initial predictions were in the 10 inch range. But as the days passed, the forecasted snow totals went up. In the last 12 hours before the first flakes began to fly, we were told to expect 20 to 30 inches. With the forecasts came warnings from city, county, and state officials to stock up the home larders and be home or shelter in place by 5 pm Friday.
Up till that week, Northern Virginia really hadn't seen any snow. Oh, there had been one or two instances of flurries and snow showers, but nothing that left any trace of its passage. Then on Wednesday, an inch of snow fell in the area. Many counties made the decision to not pre-treat the roads, as the temperatures would cause the brine mixture to freeze. The result was predictable. The light snowfall became ice and 150 motorists came to grief across the DMV as a result. This caused a great deal of apprehension. Here we were staring down the barrel of an historic blizzard after the unreasonable chaos resulting from just an inch of snow.
Thursday was sunny, if exquisitely cold, the wind bringing a bite to the already chilly temperatures. All day long, on radio, TV, and in the papers, the mantra continued. Stock up, make plans, prepare to hunker down until at least Monday. Friday dawned cloudy and chilly, and people took the morning and early afternoon to complete preparations. The first flakes arrived here in Loudoun County around 12:30, light snow which lasted for a bit, then stopped. The big stuff arrived about a half-hour later and immediately the grass and roads began to turn white. Cheryl was on call overnight Friday, and the hospital management mandated that they stay the night there, rather than take the chance of not being able to answer an emergency call. I drove her there about 5:00. The snow had really picked up by then and was already several inches deep on the roads. Still, we got there without too much drama. She went in, and I went home.
As the evening wore on, the snow picked up in intensity. I measured 8 inches by 8 pm, although the predicted high winds hadn't materialized. After completing two rounds of shoveling, I went to bed.
I woke up around 6 am, and looking out my window, I could see that the snow was up to about 14 inches. I dressed and went outside. My vehicle, a 2006 Highlander, was partially blocked by the snow. I shoveled for a bit, then bulled the SUV through the remnants and headed for the hospital. The trucks had been out all night, but the snow was piling up faster than they could plow. In the grey light of dawn, I had no little trouble finding the edges of the roadway. I had to blast through another pile to turn from US50 to the main street in front of the hospital. Interestingly, the easiest part of that drive was through the hospital parking lot which was being well taken care of. I had to shovel snow away from the side door through which she exited, and then we left. Going back home was rougher. In the short time of the trip, my wheel tracks had already filled in. The wind was starting to gust and the way was slick and the experience heart-pounding. Getting home, we parked in the street then got out the shovels and cleared the driveway enough for me to pull in. The wind was biting and it seemed that a lot of the snow we tried to move was blasted from the shovels by the high winds.
Once inside, we made the tacit decision to stay there. It was clear that travel beyond that point would be at the risk of life.
We were lucky in that we had power all day long. Heat, lights, media, all worked just fine. We spent the day watching movies, playing games, making frequent visits to the windows to watch as the snow piled up. Watching the news, we could see that there were other people who hadn't heeded the official warnings. There was video of cars in ditches and stuck in the middle of the road, cars with very little ground clearance like Elantras and Prius that had no business being on the road in these conditions. On I-270, there was a long line of tractor-trailers, all driven by professional drivers, stuck in the snow.
By mid-afternoon, we all piled outside to shovel again. Except for me. My back had betrayed me. Still, the crew moved a lot of snow. In the late afternoon, the snow intensity and the ferocity of the winds really increased. I found that a good way to keep track of the snow depth was to look out the back door at the deck.
...And 24 hours later
Finally Saturday evening brought some good news. Originally, the snow was to continue until dawn Sunday. But the storm began to lift out early and we were told that the snow would finally end around midnight Saturday. Good news. Don't know about anybody else, but I certainly had my fill.
Measuring snow totals during high winds is a tricky business, as you don't know if your measuring snowfall or snow drift. But doing as I had been taught, I measured a depth of 34 inches.
This storm, like all others, will end. But the aftermath will go on for a while. Tomorrow the sun will shine, but the freezing point will elude thermometers, so the only snow that will go away will be that moved by shovels. Indeed, over the next seven days, we have been told to expect several cycles of thaw and re-freeze, which promises dire conditions for the morning commutes.
This was the worst snowstorm in my experience. The snow just kept coming, without any discernable pause or letup. The high winds, once they arrived, howled mercilessly, turning snowflakes into particles suitable for sandblasting. There are other places for which storms like this are normal and even regular. But the areas around Washington DC are not equipped to handle these types of storms, and the people who live here still tend to lose their minds in bad weather. So what is typical for Jackson, Wyoming, becomes a disaster here. There are lessons to be learned for those of us who lived this storm, and hopefully those lessons will be taken to heart. But probably not.
At some point, probably in July, we will sit in the baking heat of a Virginia summer and reminisce about the Blizzard of 2016, stories which will likely become more lurid every time they are told. Those stories and the memory of this experience will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
Eventually, this snow will melt, although I suspect that some of these parking lot mountains may persist into April before they go the way of Frosty the Snowman. In fact, the very long range forecast indicates a week of 50-degree days around the first of February.
Then Spring Training for baseball starts up, and there's no better harbinger of better times.