Once again, commuters in the Washington area dealt with their share of headaches Friday as a bout of severe weather literally blew through the region. We’ve been relatively lucky this winter season to have avoided any of the major disruptions seen in years past (no Snowpocalypse this year!), but last week’s wind storm still can offer some lessons in how weather impacts us.
Here’s a reminder of some things we seem to learn each time weather wreaks havoc on the Washington region.
The Biggest Problems Are Often the Most Local - If highways are clear and Metro is running smoothly, that means nothing if you can’t get out of your own neighborhood. Broken traffic lights, downed trees, and unplowed snow are often problems that impact people right near where they live. During snowstorms, side streets are often the last to be plowed. Water main breaks can flood individual streets and close intersections. These are the kinds of things that can create the most stress for commuters. When a highway or rail system is closed, we can at least say we’re all in this together. But when your own street is flooded or blocked by a power line, it’s easy to feel helpless.
Be Aware of Possible Bridge Restrictions - High winds on Friday forced Maryland transportation officials to issue wind warnings and restrictions on several major bridges, including the Bay Bridge connecting this region to the Eastern Shore. At times, the Bay Bridge and others in the state were closed to all traffic, creating massive backups at toll plazas and forcing many motorists to scramble for alternate routes. For those commuting across the Bay Bridge, there aren’t a lot of good options. There is simply no quick alternate route to get from the Annapolis area to the side of the Chesapeake Bay. The best advice is to pay close attention to forecasts and to call 1-877-BAYSPAN to get real-time updates on bridge crossings.
Commuter Rail Isn’t A Great Option - While it’s certainly safer and smarter to take MARC or VRE instead of driving in bad weather, commuter rail service will often shut down or only offer restricted service. On Friday, MARC began by announcing a limited schedule, then stopped service altogether. VRE also didn’t run. Those who run the commuter rail services do the best they can, but you should not necessarily count on trains to run in severe weather.
Metro Actually Does OK - Metro gets a lot of criticism and much of it is deserved. But Metro is often the most reliable transportation service when the weather gets bad. Metrorail never shut down on Friday, though it did have some slower service along above-ground sections of the rail system. We’ve seen Metro run even during heavy snow and other severe weather, and sections in the city that are underground are often not impacted at all. For the most part, we’ve seen Metro shut down completely only when conditions are at their most severe.
It’s Easy to Get Surprised - Weather is weird in this area. The winds experienced on Friday and Saturday were unusual, especially considering that they did not come with heavy precipitation. And yet, they proved to be more destructive than any weather in the last year. The derecho in June of 2012 is another example of a massively destructive weather event that few people saw coming.
Washington area residents are also accustomed to seeing an inch of rain turn into a major ice event, and a couple inches of snow turn into a half a foot that cripples the region. Winter temperatures around here often right around freezing, making the impact of any precipitation event very difficult to predict. There’s also tremendous variations in impact depending on location. A resident of the District, for example, may experience a light rain storm while residents of Montgomery County may see four inches of snow. You just never know.
We Love Our Trees - Let’s face it. We all love the idea of living in a pristine, tree-lined neighborhood. We nestled our developments in wooded areas and enjoy the illusion that we’re residing in the forest and amidst nature. It’s great to embrace trees; I am not advocating that we should raze every wooded area we see. But trees fall down in the wind, knocking out power lines and falling on homes. Trees fall into roadways. Trees can crush cars and even people. Rest assured that those areas impacted most by blocked roadways and downed power lines are those with the most wooded area.