Remembering the snowiest winter in Washington's history

By the time it was over, the D.C. area had been blanketed by nearly five feet of snow. Photo: Karen Springfield Smith

(WJLA) - Daniel Clark and his girlfriend, Meghan, were in the car en route to downtown Washington, where the plan was to ask her to marry him.

A little snow on the ground wasn’t going to stop them because Daniel, a Michigan native, was used to driving in the heavy powder.

Not this snow. Not on Dec. 19, 2009, in the midst of what was the beginning of the snowiest winter in Washington’s recorded history.

By the time the winter of 2009-10 ended, 56.1 inches of snow had fallen at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the highest total since the National Weather Service started keeping track of the statistic in 1888.

To the west and north, the totals were even more staggering: Dulles recorded 73.2 inches, while the amount at Baltimore-Washington International Airport topped out at 77 inches.

“It’s literally something you see only every 100 years,” ABC7 meteorologist Alex Liggitt said.

Eventually, the snow got to be too much and Daniel and Meghan turned around. The proposal would have to come another day.

The historical ramifications

Before 2009 and 2010, when one would talk about the most significant snowstorms to inundate the nation’s capital, talk would quickly turn to such events as the January 1982, the Veterans Day storm of 1987 or the Blizzard of 1996.

It all turned on its head in the days leading up to Dec. 19, when both Liggitt and meteorologist Devon Lucie almost had trouble believing what they were seeing.

“I was almost shocked,” Lucie said. “I watched the evolution of the forecasts to see if there would be much variability or run-to-run changes in the track, intensity and moisture associated with the storm.

“I saw little variance, which was a big signal.”

Liggitt, meanwhile, was awestruck by how the forecast continued to hold together as the days toward the first storm of the season; it ended up being a storm that prefaced two more in February that created D.C.’s whitest on record.

“Each storm developed six days out and we were waiting for variations, but it held…held…held all the way to three days, two days, a day out,” he said.

“Then we said, ‘This is really going to happen.’”

Storm #1 hits

Flakes started falling on most parts of the D.C. area on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 19, and in Stafford County, Christine Wallace Galyen and her family were getting ready to return home from Blacksburg, where he stepdaughter had graduated from Virginia Tech.

That trek, which usually takes about 4 hours, took 29.

“Our windshield wipers were toast,” Galyen said. “We our way to one of those no-tell roadside motels; the sheets didn’t fit the bed. We slept in our clothes until 4:30 in the morning, when the heat went out.”

In Washington, the wet, heavy snow began to pile up very quickly and cut off many city services. Metro trains stopped running above ground because of the sheer depth of the drifts.

“It impacted the city pretty badly, but it started melting,” Liggitt said. “It was some of the heaviest snow I’ve ever had to shovel.”

At Dupont Circle, thousands gathered for what turned out to be a massive snowball fight; a sort of controlled anarchy for those who couldn’t stay cooped up inside any longer. It was less pleasant for Rachel Orellana in Woodbridge, though, who was pregnant at the time.

“We were stranded for three days with no heat, no warm water and no warm food,” she said of her time at her home, which was at the bottom of a hill that couldn’t be driven. “On the third day, our neighbor tied a rope from his truck to our car and pulled us up the hill.”

Rachel’s daughter was born, healthy and happy, in June of 2010.
Meanwhile, on the roads of Virginia, Galyen and her family finally got home after an arduous journey.

“As soon as it got light enough, we dug out our truck, got back onto Route 1 and followed a snow plow to our other daughter’s house,” she said.

By the time December 19 had come and gone, 19.7 inches of snow had fallen at DCA and totals stretched past three feet in the suburbs.

And, by Dec. 20, Meghan and Daniel’s delayed engagement was official.

“We ended up going in by Metro on the 20th,” Meghan said. “We trudged down the mall to the spot he’d selected and ended up having a fairly private and romantic – if cold – proposal.”

Only the beginning

Little did Washington know what it was getting into. As January turned into February, the hallmarks of a major storm began popping up again in the form of a large coastal low.

“You could almost count on the high end of the forecasts occurring based upon the nature of the season,” Lucie said. “The active southern Jetstream across the United States and abundant moisture fields that had been occurring over and over would repeat yet again.

“The exact setup was going to repeat itself, making for a fairly simple forecasting decision.”

That decision was prediction of the second major blast of winter weather for Feb. 5, and this one was comparable to December.

For most in the area, the Friday storm was convenient – federal workers were let out early and others got to celebrating America’s annual sports megashow – Super Bowl Sunday – a few days early.

It was anything but stress free for Stephanie Britton of Fairfax County though. Britton had waited for her entire life to see her New Orleans Saints play for an NFL title. Mother Nature had other plans.

“When I was growing up, people always said that the Saints would make it to the Super Bowl when hell freezes over, and that’s exactly what happened,” Britton said. She had gotten her hands on four tickets to Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, but the snow was keeping her from obtaining the tickets themselves.

Getting to South Florida was an entirely separate problem with the airports hampered yet again.

“It snowed so much Friday that I decided I would overnight my tickets to my friends that were already in Miami waiting on me,” she said.

Because of the snow, though, that UPS flight was going nowhere fast, so the employee saved the day.

“(The employee’s) son-in-law had gone to Dulles at 3 a.m. in all the snow to get my tickets,” she said, and he met her at the store to deliver them. “He said, ‘This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I did not want you to miss it.”

Britton eventually had to hop a train to New York for a flight to Miami, and with two hours to spare, she made it to the stadium. New Orleans won.

Other acts of kindness emerge

The old axiom says that difficult situations sometimes bring out the best in everybody, and throughout Washington, neighbors helped each other get through both the first and second storm.

“So many people in my cul de sac couldn’t get out for three days, so we got out to shovel the sidewalk and had 8-foot walls of snow making aisles that we walked through,” Columbia resident Gabriele Napper Salinas said.

“The neighbors all said hello and helped each other out with snow, tree and limb removal.”

In Germantown, Karen Springfield Smith says that a half dozen people simply showed up and started digging her out.

“My three daughters and I were trapped until some men…asked if we needed help,” she said. “It took five men six hours to shovel a pathway to my house from the street.”

All seemed serene once again. That serenity lasted about 48 hours.

The third – and most violent – storm comes

On Feb. 9, while the region dug out from the second blast, the forecast came down yet again for a third, and potentially the most potent, storm of them all. This one, unlike the others, packed winds that could translate to a full-blown blizzard.

“We often throw out white-out conditions, but we were walking up the street in Rosslyn in 50 mile-per-hour winds,” Liggitt said. “If you were outside for a prolonged period of time, you were in big trouble.”

The final major storm of the season blew through quickly, but not before it dropped another foot or so of snow on top of the 18.2 inches that came a few days earlier.

Yearning for spring

The snowiest winter in D.C.’s history finally came to an end for a winter-wonderland-weary D.C. area, but not before residents had to dig out from under nearly five feet of snow.

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Snow lovers yearn for it again, but in the years since the winter that brought us Snowmageddon – or SnOMG, SnOMG2 or a number of other nicknames it earned – we’ve had next to nothing. At Reagan, the snow totals year to year since 2009-10 have dipped to 10.1 inches to 2.0 to 3.1 last year.

How could such a dramatic dropoff occur? Luck, basically, Liggitt says.

“You have to have the exact right conditions for stuff like this to happen,” he said. “We’ve been missed by 50 miles or so numerous times. It’s been bad luck due to the track, no polar air outbreaks, no strong coastal lows.

“It just hasn’t been the same dynamics since that winter.”