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Washington braces for epic snowstorm but isn’t well-prepared

WASHINGTON – The nation’s capital braced this morning for two feet of snow, all the while knowing that a mere inch – a dusting, in Buffalo parlance – paralyzed the region only two nights ago.

And if that fact seems inconceivable and somewhat humorous to people in Buffalo, you’re not alone. Buffalo natives who live here now are collectively shaking their heads at D.C.’s incompetence at managing winter weather – and worrying how the region will cope with a snowstorm that could be the biggest in the region’s history.

Washington’s winter weather’s incompetence stretches from local governments who never bothered to salt the roads Wednesday night to locals who had raided local groceries of every last leaf of lettuce – not traditionally regarded as a comfort food – by Thursday night.

This may be the best-educated city in the country, noted Laurie Kellman, 48, an Associated Press reporter who is the daughter of former Channel 2 news anchor Rich Kellman.

“Yet snow baffles us,” Kellman said.

Kellman learned that again the hard way on Wednesday night, when her journey from her downtown office to her home in Fairfax County, Va. – a drive that shouldn’t take much more than a half-hour – stretched to five hours.

The reason?

Neither D.C. nor Virginia nor Maryland treated their roads before Wednesday’s dusting of snow, even though the National Weather Service warned of icy conditions.

The result?

Black ice everywhere, and a bumper crop of fender-benders and clogged roads all around the region.

Even President Barack Obama got caught up in the mess. His motorcade took an hour and 14 minutes to traverse the 14.8 mile drive between Andrews Air Force Base and the White House, while the press van behind his limo “slipped and skidded on icy roads making contact several times with the curb,” according to a Reuters news report.

Now you might find that funny, or just the sort of scare the mainstream media deserves, but Kellman noted that the icy roads would have posed a special hazard to anyone facing a medical emergency.

“Completely untreated roads when the snow started falling, in all three major jurisdictions,” she noted. “It’s a total fail in terms of public safety, and one that other cities, such as Buffalo, avoid.”

Asked how this could have happened, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said, in essence, oops.

“We are very sorry for an inadequate response. We should have been out earlier with more resources,” said Bowser.

There’s one obvious reason why Washington doesn’t manage snow as well as Buffalo. Major snowfalls rarely happen here, so local governments here don’t have the same equipment or experienced snow-removal crews that highway departments have in the Buffalo area.

“You’re not going to buy that stuff here because you don’t have the use for them,” noted Jeffrey Hunt, 25, a native of Holland who now goes to graduate school at the University of Maryland, just outside of D.C.

The area will have use for such equipment this weekend. Forecasters unanimously predicted a blizzard of historic proportions, with a much as 30 inches of snow and wind gusts of up to 40 miles an hour, starting this afternoon and running through Saturday night.

In response, Washington hunkered down. Federal employees were sent home at noon, and the area’s subway and bus system was set to shut down for the weekend late on Friday.

Meantime, grocery shoppers stuffed their carts with more food than any human could eat during a three-day blizzard. So by nightfall Thursday, it wasn’t just the lettuce that had disappeared from local shelfs. At a Trader Joe’s about a mile north of the White House, all the eggs and meat were gone, and a line of customers waiting to check out snaked from the front of the store through all six aisles to the far back corner.

“I find the panic and run to the grocery stores laughable,” said Sam Sanders, 30, a Buffalo native who now lives on Capitol Hill.

So does Tim Wendel, an author of nine books who grew up in Lockport but who now lives in the D.C. suburb of Vienna, Va.

Wendel went to a local Wegman’s on Wednesday night and had an experience that would probably make Jimmy Griffin, the late Buffalo mayor, curse and reach for a cold one.

“Wegmans, of course, was packed, but what I couldn’t believe was that the produce section was cleaned out,” Wendel noted. “Not a carrot or green bean or mixed salad to be had. But there was plenty of beer. I couldn’t help thinking these folks have their priorities mixed up.”