City starts recovery process after historic blizzard

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City starts recovery process after historic blizzard
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By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

Alexandrians have begun the process of digging themselves out from beneath a historic winter storm that hit last Friday and Saturday and dumped approximately 22 inches of snow — what usually falls in a year and a half — on the city in just 36 hours.

Flakes began falling around lunchtime Friday and accumulated more or less non-stop until early Sunday, causing the city to declare a state of emergency. Alexandria City Public Schools closed on January 21 and remained closed Wednesday, while city council’s January 23 public hearing at City Hall was postponed to January 30.

Very few power outages were reported in the city by Dominion Virginia Power, with only about 150 residents without power on Sunday.

The storm had been forecast for several days ahead of time, giving city officials plenty of time to prepare. The city compiled 80 snow plows and other trucks from contractors both inside and outside Virginia, aware of the task ahead of them.

“To put it in perspective, we have 560 lane miles of road, so if you think about each one of those lanes requiring somewhere between two and six passes to clear it, you wind up with what is actually thousands of miles that has to be covered,” said city spokesman Craig Fifer. “Imagine if you had to drive thousands of miles, and you had to do it through two feet of snow, it would take a very long time. We understand that many residents are frustrated that the snow can’t be moved faster, but we anticipated that kind of delay.”

When deciding whether to close city government, City Manager Mark Jinks makes the final call based on current conditions, taking into account closures from neighboring jurisdictions. The final decision is generally made in the evening after several local and regional conference calls throughout the day.

ACPS officials said that their decision whether to close is made during a conference call between director of transportation David Rose, ACPS chief operating officer Clarence Stukes, Superintendent Alvin Crawley and chief of staff Tammy Ignacio, with the goal to communicate that decision by 5:30 a.m.

But Fifer said that while the government may be closed, about half of city employees remain on the job, including first responders and essential human services employees like child protective service workers. To cope with the conditions, the Alexandria Police Department set up a central command center to keep track of its officers’ movements and what resources are available.

“It’s keeping track of all the players on the chessboard, because as soon as one of our cars gets stuck, that’s one less resource,” police spokeswoman Crystal Nosal said. “It’s also keeping track of what areas of the city have passable roads and what ones don’t, because our officers still had to respond to calls. So there were times on Saturday and Sunday where they had to park and walk to a call, versus just driving up to it.”

Since the weekend, plows have worked to clear streets, beginning with those determined as primary routes — about 40 percent of city streets — then progressing down to streets determined as secondary routes and then to residential streets. Fifer said it might take several more days for all streets to be cleared and urged patience.

“A lot of times, I think people are envisioning that a plow is just going to come down their street and the street will be clear,” he said. “What actually has to happen in many cases is a front-end loader has to come in with a dump truck and a smaller plow, and all three have to work together to move the snow around. It can be very tedious and it can be very time-consuming.”

Moving forward, some may question why there are not more resources on hand to deal with a winter storm of this magnitude. But Fifer said there is additional cost associated with acquiring and maintaining more trucks and equipment, and that the return on investment may not be worthwhile if it is used infrequently.

“It is difficult to prepare for a storm of that intensity in a way that can clear the snow as quickly as a typical storm without spending millions of dollars more than we already do,” Fifer said. “The community can have a conversation about the level of preparedness we would like to have and it’s a valid discussion, especially in the context of the budget. We try to strike a balance between expected outcomes and the cost of those outcomes.”

In an email Sunday, Mayor Allison Silberberg praised the work of crews clearing roads and encouraged residents to be cautious and allow the plows and other machinery to do their jobs.

“Our crews are doing an outstanding job, working around the clock to make our roads safe for us as fast as possible,” Silberberg wrote. “My heartfelt thanks to all those who are driving those snow plows. They have true grit! I am incredibly proud of our dedicated snow plow crews and entire staff to ensure our safety. Each of us needs to do our part and stay safe.”

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