Feb. 5, 2010 -- The flakes hadn't even begun flying before fear of the impending "snowpocalypse" began sweeping the nation's capital this week. Now, as the city hunkers down for what meteorologists predict will be a "historic" storm, District of Columbia residents are abuzz with a collective mania many say they've never seen before.
The federal government, which employs nearly 300,000 people from the greater D.C. area, and many local businesses planned to close hours early today. Dozens of school districts decided Thursday to give students the day off; all before any snow had fallen.
Forecasters expect the region to receive between 16 and 26 inches of snow by Saturday night, rivaling the top two snowstorms in history. Washington, D.C., received 20.5 inches in a February 1899 storm and 28 inches in a January 1922 storm.
Residents have been flooding area retailers to prepare for the worst. Grocery stores say they can hardly keep up with restocking empty shelves with staple items. Hardware stores are sold out of shovels, snow blowers and salt. And pharmacies and gas stations are slammed with consumers trying to fill up.
At one Whole Foods Market in the northwest part of the district, shoppers panicked when the crowded store reached capacity last night, forcing managers to order it closed at 9 p.m. One woman outside amid the hoards waiting to get in screamed, "Let me in, let me in. I don't have any coffee at home," reported one local blogger who was there.
"There were too many people in the store, it was a fire hazard," employee Tara Bennett told ABC News. "It's still crazy, chaotic here today. The lines are 45 minutes to an hour wait."
At a suburban Safeway supermarket in Alexandria, Va., resident Jeffrey Thomas-Ledesma said today the bakery, deli and chip sections all appeared ransacked, with the meat case in by far the worst shape.
Unprecedented checkout lines were also reported at stores across the district, although several managers said they had yet to run out of staples such as bread, milk and eggs. They said they could face temporary shortages once the storm hits.
This isn't the first time the city has seen its residents scramble for essentials in the face of a potentially debilitating storm, but the collective behavior still seemed to catch many people by surprise.
"I think this behavior may not be irrational," Joanne Nigg, a sociologist with the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware in Newark, said of the rush to stock up. "I think what people are actually doing is preparing for a worst-case situation."
Expert Says Pre-Storm Craze Is Rare but Normal
Nigg said emergency managers typically want people -- particularly families with young children, the elderly, and people with disabilities -- to be able to be self-sufficient for up to 72 hours in storms such as the one forecast now.
"This is an ambiguous situation and people will often try to take more precautionary measures to make sure they're safe or not run out of food," Nigg said. "The thing is, everybody's doing it at once. That's what's rare."
In the blogosphere, the storm is being hailed as "Snowmageddon," a "snOMGasm," the great "Snowbliteration" or even the "Snow Bowl."
"People are looking @ the 1st flakes of snow like Pompeii residents watching ash fall on their fair city," tweeted "DFooksman" on Twitter.
"BigBobBurns" speculated in a tweet that the storm might be "God scratching his dandruff. Selson Blue? Hello???"
"I wonder how many babies are going to be born 9 mos from this snowpocalypse," "budweiserplease" wondered on Twitter.
Much of the hype and fascination with the storm probably stems less from the actual danger, Nigg said, and more from humans' fascination with their own rare -- but sociologically normal -- behavior.