Alexandria recovers after receiving almost 10 inches of snow

Alexandria recovers after receiving almost 10 inches of snow
Photo/Scott Collins. Tuesday's sunrise on lower King Street.

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Alexandria experienced its first snowstorm of the year on Monday, as some areas of the city were hit with up to 10 inches of snow the day after the local temperature reached 63 degrees.

The storm, which dropped 7 to 10 inches of snow before subsiding at about 2 p.m., shuttered city facilities, suspended services and closed roads as city workers attempted to keep up with an unexpectedly severe winter storm. Although Metro continued to operate, the city’s DASH bus network suspended service on Monday before resuming service on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, unlike other neighboring school districts in Arlington and Fairfax County which called snow days on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Alexandria City Public Schools shifted to virtual learning on those days.

Yon Lambert, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said the city categorizes storms as either a level one, two or three event, with level three denoting the most severe conditions. According to Lambert, due to the level of snowfall on Monday, this week’s storm ranked as a level two event.

“The reason for that is typically once we start seeing 8 inches of snow, that gets to be a point at which it gets more difficult for us to push and manage across the city,” Lambert said.

Photo/Eddie Gonzalez.
The snow covered boardwalk behind the Torpedo Factory at sunset Monday.

The storm categorization system allows the city to not only communicate the severity of a storm but its expectations for how soon residents should clear their sidewalks after a storm. Residents are expected to shovel their sidewalks 24 hours after a level one storm, 48 hours after a level two storm and 72 hours after a level three storm.

With snow still piled up outside, many have been left wondering what plans the city has in place to clear city streets both during and after intense snowstorms like this. According to Lambert, the city follows a well-established process when responding to snowstorms – it just might not occur at the pace that residents would like.

Broadly speaking, it can take up to three days to completely clear streets in a level one storm. In the case of a level two storm, the more significant snowfall can stretch that up to five days. However, that fiveday period is how long it takes to completely clear the city’s roads. Throughout that time the city plows streets according to a priority-based system.

Alexandria includes 561 lane miles of roads, 20 miles of sidewalks and 44 acres of municipal parking lots and squares. In order to efficiently clear all those miles after a snowstorm, the city breaks it down into 11 zones and prioritizes making certain roads in each zone passable before moving on to other roads.

“The goal of making roads passable and focusing on emergency and public utility vehicles is for us to, in an ordinary fashion, focus on the most important streets down to the streets that see the least amount of travel,” Lambert said. “When we make a road passable, what we’re not doing is necessarily making it clear from curb to curb. We’re making it passable at first and then over time we’ll come back and improve it.”

In each zone, the city clears what are considered “primary roads” first – major roads and snow emergency routes that provide access to emergency vehicles – before moving on to secondary roads such as neighborhood streets that are major transit routes and then intermediate and residential roads.

Photo/Eddie Gonzalez.
A car awaits the dig out after the storm.

By Monday night, the city had made most primary roads passable before moving on to secondary roads. According to Lambert, the city commenced residential street work on Tuesday afternoon and night, although residents shouldn’t expect streets to be completely clear until a few days after the storm.

The city uses about 20 to 25 trucks on a day and night shift, in concert with contractors and other community partners like ACPS, to help clear Alexandria’s streets. Due to pandemic-induced staffing shortages, T&ES had to find creative ways to address the city’s needs this week.

“We’re down about 20% staffing, so that also has meant what we have done is rotated some people around,” Lambert said. “We’ve had to call on some folks that we don’t always typically call on. … We’re calling people to both help us operate trucks and do some clearing but also help us manage the event.”

Typically, the city pretreats roads with brine, a saltwater solution that prevents snow and ice from creating too much of a bind on the road. Unfortunately, pretreatment made little difference on Monday due to how the storm started.

“The difference in the storm we had yesterday was the storm started as a rain event, so there was no way to pretreat roads because that pretreatment just washes away,” Lambert said.

Monday’s storm also brought two other significant issues to Alexandria: downed trees and power and internet outages. The Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities reported more than 150 locations around the city with tree-related issues, and as of 2 p.m. on Tuesday – a day after the snow stopped falling – 1,384 Dominion Energy customers were still without power.

Photo/Anjuli Bamzai.
A Russell Road back yard.

Councilor John Chapman said he received a number of reports from residents who had previously spoken with the city’s arborist about removing a tree near their house and been told the tree was healthy enough to remain in place – only for the very same tree to fall during the storm. He aims to have the arborist come before council at an upcoming council meeting to discuss the matter.

“If a resident is putting us on notice that a tree is unhealthy and needs to be taken down, we need to take that seriously,” Chapman said.

With the city continuing its work through the week – and the potential for more snow events on Thursday night and over the weekend – residents do have some resources to help monitor the city’s snowstorm recovery efforts. Snow Report, which is available at https://apps.alexandriava. gov/SnowReport, is a map the city updates to track which roads have been treated, made passable or cleared.

According to Lambert, T&ES staff make real time updates to the map as they communicate with their teams out on the city’s streets. Residents are also able to search their address to find the current status of their street and request service as long as their street is in the right priority.

“The way the system works is you can make a request for city snow clearing services once we have accomplished our priorities but not before,” Lambert said. “Residents can’t summon plows to do residential streets because if we haven’t actually finished our primary and secondary streets, we’re not actually working on residential streets yet.”

Chapman said that although the city has improved its communication tools since he was sworn into City Council in 2013, he still hopes to add GPS trackers to plow trucks so that residents can see in real time what areas of the city are being covered.

“I think that’s even more important because you have individuals who either feel the need or their employers feel the need for them to be out in extreme weather,” Chapman said. “Being able to provide them a sense of what’s available and what’s not will help them traverse where they need to go.”

Meteorologists are projecting a chance for more snow on Thursday night.

[Read more: DASH reduces bus service due to staffing shortage]