A coat of up to 36 inches of snow, but few power outages and emergencies
Even the geese saw this one coming, as flocks of a dozen or so merged into strings a hundred strong, fleeing the white wall of snow that had faded the Blue Ridge to the West on Friday by about 10:30 a.m., soaring high over frozen ponds in Washington.
At the Quicke Mart, drivers lined up four-deep waited to fill their tanks. Every parking spot was full of residents checking fluids, adding oil, buying last-minute toilet paper and beer before the big snow hit. The first flakes began to fall slowly in Sperryville at the Corner Store at 11:30 a.m. By noon, fast-falling, mid-sized flakes coated the ground.
The snow increased in intensity and the winds picked up over the next 36 hours, when a total of 36 inches fell in Chester Gap, and several other areas of the county reported between 20 and 30 inches of snowfall. Steady winds at around 20 mph kept the accumulation from flexing and snapping the trees.
National news reporting on the falling snow late into the night Friday referenced “panic in the District” and “conditions continuing to rapidly deteriorate,” as yellow Prius taxi cabs circled the block behind snow-blown reporters in Northern Virginia, and tipsy 20-somethings danced and cheered in the background. Meanwhile Thursday afternoon in Culpeper, two men at Wal-Mart fought over the last metal snow shovel.
Rappahannock County Public Schools closed pre-emptively for Friday, in preparation of the snow, and remain closed Wednesday (Jan. 27).
And yet, though the storm produced more snow than any winter weather event in the last 20 years, only two homes in the county lost power. There were no significant emergencies, no forced evacuations — only relatively minor frustration at the incomplete plowing jobs performed on secondary and residential subdivision roads.
VDOT assigned a crew of 16 staff operating a total of 18 pieces of state-owned equipment to work Rappahannock County on a constant basis, beginning with coating the roads with stripes of salt brine Wednesday and Thursday, and they are still working to clear and treat secondary roads. There are also 24 pieces of equipment in the county — from tractors to bulldozers to graders and trucks with plows — used by private contractors hired by VDOT.
As the snow fell and blew sideways throughout the day Saturday, songbirds nervously hopped from branch to branch on naked shrubs, shivering off snow from their tufts as they waited out the storm. The snow stopped in most areas of the county several hours after dark Saturday night.
High winds on Sunday brought drifts, in some places as high as six feet.
‘EVERYONE PLANNED ACCORDINGLY’
County Administrator John McCarthy said Tuesday that the damage caused by the storm was isolated and minimal for two reasons:
“One, that the forecast was so far in advance that everybody was perfectly aware, pretty much from Monday, that Friday was going to bring a whopper of a storm. Everyone planned accordingly, the average homeowner, and VDOT, and the power companies,” he said. “And two, we didn’t have the outages that we’ve had in past storms, where lines came down, either with the trees taking them or they’re just old lines. [Rappahannock Electric Cooperative] has rebuilt a lot of their line, including the main service that comes from Rixeyville to Sperryville. So all that stuff is more robust than it’s been in the past.”
All county offices and posts were closed Monday, due to the large quantity of snow, single-lane plowing and lack of parking. As of Wednesday morning, snow piles still lined the iced-over roads Gay Street, Main Street and Jett Street in Washington, making driving and parking around the courthouse and office buildings tricky. For the first time in his recollection, McCarthy had to close the Amissville Landfill on Monday, based on the condition of Weaver Road which connects to U.S. 211.
David Yowell, who operates a private weather station at his home down Gid Brown Hollow, tallied 23 inches of snow and winds in the 20 mph range — figures automatically recorded and updated on Rappahannockweather.com.
“The wind was actually helpful because it kept the snow from building up in the trees by the power lines,” Yowell said. He recalled a blizzard in 1994 that had much higher winds, and a another one in ’96 that produced a near-identical amount of snow.
The only two homes that lost power during the blizzard were connected to the same distribution line that broke when a tree fell across it, McCarthy said, which he considers incredible since typically with a storm of this magnitude, hundreds are left without power. Now, however, there is the issue of parking in the county seat.
“I don’t understand why the plows never came back to plow Gay Street,” realtor Jan Makela said Wednesday, standing in a pile of mushy, brown snow resting on a translucent sheet of ice in the middle of Gay Street, 50 feet from her office. “There is nowhere to park, and to think this is directly in front of the courthouse and office buildings.”
Sheriff Connie C. Smith compared this storm with the Blizzard of 1996, when 36 inches of snow were also measured in Chester Gap, but she said that this storm was handled well, and thus there were few emergencies reported.
“We had a couple seizure calls, couple accident calls, attempted suicide call, people complaining because their driveways weren’t plowed. But we didn’t have anything too major,” said Smith, whose brother plowed her driveway this weekend. “I mean, people stayed in, which allowed VDOT to clear the roads. There were troopers out, there were deputies out, everybody was out. . . . But I think because it was on a weekend, most people got prepared and stayed home for the weekend. There really wasn’t any reason to be out.”
Smith said that there were a couple instances of fire trucks getting stuck responding to EMS calls, and that there were a few injuries from falls.
“We actually had a grease fire in Amissville, and then ended up transporting one person to the hospital,” Smith said. “Amissville had a plow, and whenever Amissville got a call they would plow for the responders. Little Washington had a plow and Sperryville had a plow. So if we needed to get to a house, then we would set them off for the plow, and they would plow for us, to get there. We have 4-wheel-drive [police and EMS vehicles]. So as long as it was passable, for the most part, we could get there. If we couldn’t, then we’d just call for a plow.”
VDOT district spokesperson Stacy Londrey, a Madison resident, said the rates of snowfall weren’t quite as heavy as predicted, “but the wind, the snow just swirled in the air, so it did make visibility pretty poor for the drivers.”
Londrey said the VDOT crews never stopped working, from the beginning of the snowfall until it ended Saturday night, and she foresees continued road clearing until at least Thursday.
McCarthy recalled the ’96 blizzard.
“The terrible thing about that storm was the warming afterward; it got to 50 for the next three days after the storm, and so we had this flooding,” he said. “But once again, when you know a storm is coming, 5, 6, 7 days away, get your wood, get your toilet paper, get your bourbon, and you’ll be fine. Just wait it out.”
And as for the geese, hopefully they stayed just ahead of the white wall that swallowed up the mountains and all of its people. As for the people: For many, there was food and water, electricity and internet, helpful neighbors with shovels and plows, sleds and crockpot stews. Some cabin fever last weekend and a mini baby boom next November may prove the biggest effects of the Blizzard of 2016.