U.Va. Employees Rise to the Occasion During 'Snowpocalypse'

December 20, 2009 — The biggest snowstorm since 1996 blanketed the University of Virginia and all of central Virginia in nearly two feet of snow on Friday and Saturday. As dire as that sounds – and it was certainly no picnic, especially for area motorists who had to abandon stuck cars – it could have been much worse.

With the end of exams on Friday, most students had already left for winter break. Leonard W. Sandridge, U.Va. executive vice president and chief operating officer, estimated about 75 students were stranded Friday night when flights and trains were canceled and roads became treacherous.

Also in the plus column: No strong winds to create drifts and temperatures that, while cold, weren't frigid.

Still, Sandridge said, "This ranks right up there as one of the worst storms."

On Monday, the University will operate on its inclement weather schedule. Essential employees, generally those engaged in work in the U.Va. Health System and other essential University services – such as security; power plant; student, patient and employee food services; snow removal; maintenance services; animal care; transportation services; and certain computer operations – should report to work.

Employees are advised to check with their supervisors and call the inclement weather numbers, 434-243-SNOW (7669) or 434-924-SNOW (7669) for updates. Employees who can telecommute are encouraged to do so.

Outpatient clinics will operate on a normal schedule Monday, but patients are asked to call ahead to verify their appointments and use caution when traveling. The UTS hospital shuttle will operate, and they will add other routes as they can.

The Alderman Library will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday; all other libraries will be closed. Intramurals/Recreation will open the North Grounds Recreation Center from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Memorial Gym from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday.

The new employee orientation scheduled for Monday has been postponed.

Most of the stranded students have been able to leave. Those who remain have until 5 p.m. Monday to leave their dorm rooms.

Over the weekend, Medical Center and Facilities Management employees did yeoman's work to take care of patients and clear thoroughfares and parking lots.

Tom Berry, director of emergency management for the Health System, said that, between Friday and Sunday evenings, close to 200 hospital staffers either slept in cots at the hospital or stayed in nearby hotel rooms. Even more slept in their units or made their own arrangements. Volunteers with four-wheel-drive vehicles ferried nurses and doctors to work.

"At any time, having the appropriate number of people at the Medical Center is huge," Sandridge said. "The Medical Center and its command center did a good job. A lot of effort has gone into making things as normal as possible."

Facilities Management workers have had their hands and shovels full, working in 12-hour shifts to remove the nearly two feet of snow from sidewalks and building entrances. "That's a huge physical load," Sandridge said.

Meanwhile, about 45 people found shelter between Friday and Sunday at the Aquatic and Fitness Center on U.Va.'s Grounds. The shelter, which was operated by the local Emergency Operations Center and staffed by the Red Cross and Social Services, closed Sunday afternoon.

"Ed Rivers and the IM/Rec staff did an extraordinary job accommodating people," Sandridge said. Cots were set up in the Mark E. Fletcher Gymnasium for shelter residents, several of whom were family dogs. One pet even had his own cot.

About 200 meals were served to shelter residents and stranded students on Saturday and Sunday at the Crossroads Grill in the Observatory Hill Dining Hall.

"In times like this we see the best in our employees," Sandridge said. "I couldn't be prouder of them."

The 20.5 inches recorded at McCormick Observatory made the storm the fourth-largest to hit Charlottesville since observers began keeping records more than 100 years ago, said Jerry Stenger, director of the State Climatology Office at U.Va., quoted in the Daily Progress.

U.Va. hadn't seen this much snow since 27 inches fell over several days in early January 1996. In February 2003, a storm that left some 9 inches of snow on Grounds canceled classes and closed offices.

Previous "big snows" of more than 12 inches occurred in Charlottesville in December 1989 (14 inches) and February 1983 (16 inches). According to state records, Charlottesville has experienced more than 21 inches of snow only four times since Thomas Jefferson's era: 1996, March 1962 (the "Ash Wednesday Storm"), 1922 and 1772 -- the "Washington-Jefferson Storm," which dumped a record 36 inches at Monticello.

The 1996 storm still ranks worse than the storm of 2009 for Alexander "Sandy" Gilliam, University historian. He also recalled a storm during the presidency of Frank Hereford (1974-1985). While Hereford was out of town, the provost, David Shannon, made the decision to cancel classes.

"The president was very unhappy when he returned because one just didn't cancel classes," Gilliam said.

— By Marian Anderfuren