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U.S. capital painfully digs out after record-setting snowfall

WASHINGTON - Washington's unpreparedness for winter weather once dimmed John F. Kennedy's glittering inauguration ceremony while providing him with one of his best lines about the anomalies of America's capital.

WASHINGTON - Washington's unpreparedness for winter weather once dimmed John F. Kennedy's glittering inauguration ceremony while providing him with one of his best lines about the anomalies of America's capital.

"Washington is a city of northern charm and southern efficiency," he quipped.

Almost 50 years later, a newly elected Barack Obama expressed incredulity that his daughters' school cancelled classes after a mere dusting of the white stuff. But that was last winter - this year, the president departed the Copenhagen climate summit early to get home before Washington was pounded by a record-breaking snowstorm that dumped as much as 60 centimetres of snow on the city.

Flights were grounded and D.C.'s subway system closed down for part of the weekend. Families were stranded in their homes, surrounded by a sea of unplowed snow.

Schools are shut down in many suburban counties on Monday, two days after the blizzard, because there aren't enough plows to clear residential streets in time for school buses to navigate them. Federal government offices are also closed on Monday.

One Canadian visitor to the region was stunned on Sunday as he watched the residents of a quiet neighbourhood in nearby Silver Spring, MD, dig out under sunny skies, some with garden spades rather than the snow shovels that are required possessions for any household back in Canada.

"I completely didn't expect anything like this when I came down here; I was kind of looking forward to getting out of the snow," Jono Cottingham, 19, a McGill University student, said Sunday.

"In Canada, we get this stuff a lot but comparatively, (here) it shuts down completely, everything shuts down. In Canada, we have salt and snow plows and stuff."

Cottingham had only Nike running shoes on his feet as he trudged through the hip-high snowbanks. He was heading to downtown D.C. to check out the some of the city's famed museums after the subway finally started running again.

His girlfriend wore rubber rain boots, and said she'd assumed she packed smartly for a typical D.C. December.

"I was told it never snowed here," she said.

In a city south of the Mason-Dixon line, it seldom does. Consequently, most cities and municipalities in the D.C. area don't budget for snow removal and have scant resources on hand to dig out cities and towns in the highly unusual event of a major snowstorm.

And while Canadians might feel smug watching their American cousins struggle in the aftermath of a big snowfall, imagine the situation in Montreal, say, if there were a minuscule number of snow plows, very little salt or sand and few city workers trained in snow removal.

Some sub-divisions in neighbouring Virginia, in fact, weren't expected to be cleared of snow until Wednesday, and it was unlikely that many people would be able to drive to work, said a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

A state of emergency remained in place in both D.C. and neighbouring Prince George's County in Maryland on Sunday in an effort to stop people from parking along emergency routes.

In the suburbs surrounding D.C., meantime, the rare resident with a snow-blower was the most popular person in the neighbourhood. Neighbourhood message boards were buzzing with people pleading for anyone with a snow-blower to help them out.

"While I would never before have described our driveway as 'long,' I am not sure that it's a one-or two-shovel, half-hour job and certainly not with the garden shovel I have available," Silver Spring's Kevin Kirby wrote in a message to his neighbourhood listserv.

"I am beginning to wonder about last-ditch efforts to find someone with a blow attachment who wants what would be an easy job with the right equipment."

Others sent out rapid-fire messages with word of bands of teenaged shovellers who were wandering the neighbourhood ready to dig people out in exchange for some spending money.

While adults fretted about clearing out their driveways in order to get to work on Monday, children rejoiced while partaking in an activity that Canadian children often find run-of-the-mill at the end of a long winter - tobogganing.

One neighbour with a sprawling, sloped front yard allowed dozens of kids to sled on their property.

"This is the most snow I have ever seen in my whole life," said 11-year-old Nina Wray as she pulled her sled home along the unplowed streets. "This is awesome."

 
 
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