South Korea snowed in by historic storm
SEOUL — The worst one-day snowstorm since South Korea started keeping records paralyzed air and road travel across much of the peninsula Monday, and extended the holiday weekend for most U.S. military personnel and their children.
About 11 inches of snow fell in Seoul by the time the snow stopped Monday night, beating the previous high of just over 10 inches that fell during a storm in January 1969, according to Korea Meteorological Administration spokesman Ko Jung-woong.
It was the most snow recorded since the agency began tracking snowfall in 1937, Ko said.
The impact of the storm was felt to varying degrees on U.S. bases from the Demilitarized Zone all the way south to U.S. Army Garrison-Daegu.
The steady snowfall canceled school for approximately 3,700 students at Department of Defense Dependents Schools in Pyeongtaek and Seoul.
In Areas I, II and III, nonessential personnel were either sent home early or told not to report to work. Commissaries, post exchanges, food courts, gyms and community activity centers were also closed early on many South Korea bases.
“If it wasn’t mission-essential, today we wanted people to stay home (and) be safe,” said 1st Lt. Chris Hoyler, spokesman for Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek. “It’s not ideal for driving in any way, shape or form.”
Road conditions for much of South Korea were deemed condition “red” — meaning only vehicles needed for emergencies or essential business were allowed in use, and tire chains were required — as far south as Kunsan Air Base.
“Amber” conditions were declared for roads leading as far as the southern coast of South Korea, near Pusan and Chinhae Naval Base, meaning only those military vehicles on essential business were allowed on highways.
Snow is not expected again until next Monday. However, the snow that has already fallen will be around for a while thanks to temperatures that aren’t expected to climb out of the 20s for at least the next 10 days.
U.S. military officials were keeping an eye on the sky overnight before deciding whether operations would return to normal Tuesday.
“[Tuesday’s decisions] will be based on how roads are cleared over the next 12, 16 hours, and obviously it depends on what other weather is coming our way,” Hoyler said.
DODDS-Pacific spokesman Charly Hoff urged parents to check AFN radio and TV stations for updates regarding school re-openings.
The snow forced the cancellations of numerous flights at both the Incheon and Gimpo airports, and hours-long delays were reported for those flights that did manage to take off, airport officials said.
Things were not much better on the normally congested roadways leading in and out of Seoul.
“We haven’t seen many cars running,” a Seoul police official said Monday afternoon. “They are just stopped on the road, like a parking lot. Seeing the current snowfall and freezing temperatures, the situation continues to be serious.”
In fact, 15 roads — including some leading in and out of the mountains around Seoul — were closed due to dangerous conditions.
In and around U.S. military bases, groups of people trying to help motorists whose vehicles were stuck in snow banks were a common sight.
Traffic issues led many Koreans underground, where police said subways were so jammed that a number of passengers passed out from the congestion.
Seoul Metropolitan Government spokesman Kim Jong-min said about 3,600 people were working on snow removal operations Monday, with the help of 1,200 snowplows and about 2,400 tons of salt and calcium chloride.
“The heaviest snowfall stopped Seoul from functioning as a city,” Kim said Monday. “We will keep trying to push … for swift snow clearance and provide flexible transportation measures to minimize traffic problems during rush-hour time.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Alfredo Jimenez Jr. contributed to this story.
Updated January 4, 2010 at 4:30 p.m. EST