Battling the big snow

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We will not reduce service levels or scale back on snow-removal efforts regardless of how much it costs this year. Our crews will be out in full force this week and for the rest of the winter no matter what the impact is to our budget. We will not cut back on our work to make Virginia’s roadways safer for drivers, despite our funding challenges.” –Gregory Whirley, acting commissioner, Virginia Department of Transportation

It is one thing to read about history, quite another to live through it – especially when we’re talking about Mother Nature and her delivery of over three feet of snow to areas of the country not used to handling such high volumes of the white stuff.

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Dubbed “snowmaggedon” by President Obama, a record 32 inches of snow socked in Dulles International Airport near where I live – an amount that broke an 88-year old record, set back in 1922 during the so-called “Knickerbocker” blizzard. So far, this storm is pegged to be the fourth largest blizzard in U.S. history.

Highway crews across the mid Atlantic, in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and my home state, the Commonwealth of Virginia, are still battling to clear all the roads despite depleted snow-removal budgets.

[Below you can see a clip of Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) crews as they started fighting this massive storm over the weekend.]

VDOT already expended the $79 million it allotted statewide for snow-removal efforts by Feb. 1, largely the result of a pre-Christmas blizzard that struck the Mid Atlantic back on Dec. 18, dumping 20 inches of the white stuff on the region (and giving my kids an extended two-week winter holiday in the bargain due to school closings.)

[Here’s a glimpse of VDOT battling last year’s monster storm. While not a record breaker, it packed quite a punch.]

The agency is now tapping into a $25 million emergency maintenance reserve fund to pay for snow removal, but once that is exhausted – and it’s closing in on empty – VDOT said it will move money from non-safety-related maintenance programs to cover any additional snow removal needs this winter.

Though VDOT has 2,314 pieces of snow removal equipment, 3,146 crew members, 62,000 tons of sand and 239,000 tons of salt available to keep roads clear, this storm is so big newly-installed Governor Bob McDonnell activated the National Guard to help out.

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Pennsylvania’s Governor Edward Rendell declared a statewide disaster emergency as a result of the storm, authorizing state agencies to use all available resources and personnel as is deemed necessary to cope with the magnitude and severity of this emergency situation.

Declaring a “state of emergency” also temporarily deep sixes the time-consuming bid and contract procedures and formalities normally prescribed by law – all done to help speed up state agency response times.

Governor Rendell also called out the National Guard is his state, not just to help clear roads but assist the State Police in patrols and incident response.

[Here’s an inside look at how state agencies – in this case, VDOT – typically prepare for big winter storms.]

Delaware Governor Jack Markell also announced a state of emergency, noting that the intensity and duration of the snowfall confined snowplowing activities at least initially to major highway routes. He, too, called out the National Guard in his state to fight this huge blizzard.

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“Motorists are still strongly advised to stay off the roads. In some areas, local restrictions remain in place, so drivers should check with local authorities,” he said in a press release.

“While some travel is becoming necessary, many roads are still not safe," Markell added. "Please do not put yourself and others at risk by driving needlessly. Our teams are working very hard. Staying off the roads will help them do their jobs more safely and effectively.”

[In this clip, Roy Harrell – a snowplow driver for Maryland’s State Highway Association (MSHA) – offers tips on how to operate motor vehicles around plows.]

Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley also declared a state of emergency, calling up National Guard units to beef up his state’s effort s to fight the storm.

“Maryland National Guard Units are prepared to assist local emergency managers and first responders around the state, and have already begun deployment to throughout Maryland,” Governor O’Malley said. “We urge residents to avoid driving except for the most urgent reasons. If drivers stay off the roads it will help the dedicated state and local highway crews clear the rods in a safe and efficient manner.”

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Maryland’s National Guard has more than 100 Humvees, 5-ton trucks and military ambulances helping the state deal with the storm – augmenting MSHA’s and the Maryland Transportation Administration’s (MdTA) fleet of 2,400 pieces of equipment and 2,700 personnel available for snow removal efforts.

Maryland officials also monitor storm from MSHA’s Statewide Operations Center in Hanover where it has centralized communications and access to over 150 traffic cameras located around the state.

[Here’s a quick look at what such a “command center” looks like – in this case, VDOT's Traffic Center, pressed into service to help guide snow removal efforts across the Commonwealth.]

For everyday citizens like me, it’s been an extraordinary time. I’ve spent close to 12 hours in total shoveling my driveway and sidewalk. We lost power for a few hours (THAT makes your heart skip a beat, let me tell you, when the temperature is hovering around 22 degrees Fahrenheit) but on the whole we’ve fared well in this Northern Virginia neighborhood.

It helps, too, to live as we do right on a vital transit bus route – that means the plows kept the street clear, down to the pavement, day and night, One street over, the neighbors are staring at roads choked with three feet of snow – reduced to walking and cross-country skiing to get around.

This is certainly living through history – I just wish I could close the book on this story right about now.

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