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January 07, 2010

City’s Public Works director gives post-mortem on snow removal

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By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, January 7, 2010


A car being uncovered on Water Street on Sunday, December 20, 2009

Nearly two feet of snow fell on Charlottesville in the week before Christmas during the fourth largest blizzard in recorded history. While the remaining snowdrifts and patches of black ice will melt in the short-term, the after-effects of the storm could be felt for many years to come as City officials seek ways to improve planning for the next major storm. On January 4, 2010, Public Works Director Judy Mueller appeared before City Council to describe her department’s response. She addressed what went wrong, and offered suggestions to how the city’s response might be improved the next time a massive storm hits town.

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Some facts from her presentation:

  • For six days, the streets division ran 12-hour shifts with 30 employees working snow plows to attempt to clear the roads. Seven other employees worked to support the logistics, and to repair broken equipment.
  • Over 450 tons of salt were used in the clearing efforts. Mueller said it takes 100 tons to cover every City street at least once. She said at no point did the City run out of salt.
  • Bridges were treated with a “special liquid chemical” rather than salt to reduce corrosion.
  • All of the City’s secondary streets were salted prior to the storm.
  • Plowing began after two inches of snow had fallen, and crews remained until all streets were cleared.
  • The first priority was to plow primary routes such as the Route 250 bypass, followed by transit routes, and then secondary roads. At that point, crews began to widen the paths made on primary routes.
  • The public works department received over 1,000 calls during the storm, including many people from Albemarle County who had seen the number given out in broadcast news reports.
  • Many private contractors were not available to work for the City until Monday because they had been retained to clear private parking lots.

20100104-Mueller-Council Mueller addressing Council
Mueller said this storm hit very fast and hit at rush hour. Over two feet of snow during the storm. In an average year, Charlottesville gets 17 inches of snow spread out over several storms. Mueller said the City’s equipment is designed to handle 99.99% of expected snow events.“This storm is the .01% that we really don’t have the equipment to handle in a manner everyone would have liked to have seen,” Mueller said. In response to a question from Mayor Dave Norris, Mueller said it would cost the city “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to purchase the heavy equipment needed to have been fully prepared.

In normal storms, rubber blades are routinely attached to city plows in order to reduce damage to streets. A decision was only made to switch to metal blades when it was clear the roads were packed with ice. 

Another major obstacle was the number of abandoned vehicles. Downed trees also stopped crews on some routes, especially if power lines had also fallen. Mueller said in those cases, Dominion Power must inspect the lines before the trees could be cleared to avoid electrocution.

Mueller said other City departments were also busy during the storm.

“One of the things when you have something like this that happens every 13 to 15 years is a tremendous outpouring of employees wanting to help other employees across division and departmental lines,” Mueller said.
  • The Police Department had 31 uniformed officers working on the Friday of the storm, 23 working on Saturday and 25 working on Sunday. City officers also assisted with search and rescue efforts for stranded motorists in Albemarle County.
  • The Fire Department had 37 employees working throughout the weekend, primarily to assist with the operation of the UVA Aquatics Center as a shelter for those who could not get  home. Officers also helped ferry supplies between the center and the Red Cross’s headquarters on Rose Hill Drive.
  • The Parks and Recreation Department dedicated 32 employees to clearing the downtown mall.
  • Seventeen employees from utilities division were put to work clearing public parking lots and also working on gas leaks and water main breaks.

Mueller said next time such a storm occurs, the city will take off the rubber blades earlier, will hire private contractors, and will try to do more in advance to keep people off the streets.

“We were really, really hampered by heavy traffic,” Mueller said.

Mueller said her department has repaired 36 potholes in the past week, including 13 on the Belmont bridge alone.

Councilor David Brown asked if the bus routes should have been cleared sooner in order to give pedestrians an alternative form of transportation. Mueller said the Charlottesville Transit Service opted to cancel service in the days after the storm in part because it had a hard time getting enough drivers.


City streets downtown were still covered with snow on the Sunday following the storm, allowing for unusual transportation alternatives

Councilor Kristin Szakos called for a volunteer clearinghouse to be set up in order to connect willing workers with necessary projects.

Mueller said Madison House has done that during previous storms, but there were fewer able bodies because the University of Virginia had just ended its fall semester. She said there is a group of volunteers that offer to use their 4x4 vehicles to ferry essential personnel for hospitals and other critically important public services.

One immediate outcome of the storm will be to reconvene the city’s pedestrian safety task force to discuss how sidewalks on key corridors could be cleared faster.


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