This is the first big one, according to VDOT officials, in reference to the winter storm system that will move in tomorrow (Friday), when over one foot of snow is predicted to fall in about 24 hours.
The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch Wednesday morning that included Rappahannock and the bordering counties of Madison, Culpeper, Fauquier, Page and Warren, among many others. Hazards expected are heavy snow and wind, with the potential for over a foot of snow accumulation. The winter storm watch remains in effect from Friday morning through late Saturday night. The heaviest snow and strongest winds will be Friday afternoon through Saturday night, during a blizzard watch.
“In a cold-weather storm, if the temperatures stay below freezing, the snow is going to stick to the roadways,” VDOT spokesperson Stacy Londrey said Tuesday, noting that crews start by treating the roadways with a salt brine mixture to prevent the roads from freezing. “And that helps keep that first bit of snow from sticking and creating ice on the road. Salt brine is basically liquid salt. So that would get laid down before it starts snowing.”
Londrey said that the annual VDOT preparation for winter weather began about eight months ago, when repairs to equipment and recruitment for private contractors to supplement state crews began.
“We just don’t have enough people to take care of a large storm, like the one expected. So we supplement with contractors, everybody from say, a paving company that’s not doing any work this time of year, down to a farmer that has one truck that he can outfit with a plow,” she said.
After the salt brine, for cold-weather storms, Londrey said that the crews don’t begin plowing until at least an inch or two of snow has accumulated on the road surface, because “otherwise you’re just tearing up pavement.”
Londrey said crews work in 12-hour shifts, starting by clearing interstates and primary roads. In Rappahannock, those roads are 211, 522, 231 — any roads that are numbered below 600. And then after those roads are in passable shape, which means they’re plowed down to where vehicles can travel in at least one lane in each direction, crews switch over to the secondary roads, which are the residential roads typically.
Crews work on the roads until they’re completely cleared, Londrey said, the goal being to finish clearing within 48 hours after a snow ends. “But if a storm goes on for a couple days, we’re working for several days, non stop.”
County Emergency Medical Services coordinator Richie Burke advises people to “use common sense” in not just driving on the roads, but in waiting out the storm at home. Be prepared for power outages, have plenty of firewood, don’t leave the house unless you absolutely have to, especially while the snow is coming down hard, he suggests.
Burke said, in case of emergency, volunteer fire and rescue companies in Sperryville, Amissville, Washington and Castleton each have a plow blade they will use to lead the way for response units to respond to emergency distress calls to areas that have not been plowed by VDOT or other contractors.
VDOT does plow during precipitation, Londrey said. “So as it snows, unless it’s white-out, blizzard conditions where it’s unsafe, our crews would be out plowing and getting the snow off as it falls. Because what happens, with a storm that lasts multiple days: If snow falls and people are driving on it, and then it gets even colder at night, it will actually pack into ice — and that’s very treacherous. So we try to avoid that by scraping it off, and asking people to stay home during the snow and let us do our work, trying to plow it off as quickly as we can, so it doesn’t pack down.”
Londrey recommends that if conditions are treacherous, in terms of being able to see, like visibility-restricting snow, or blizzard type conditions with a lot of wind, it’s best for drivers to just stay home.
And then, as it starts to improve, or once the snow is over but there’s still snow on the roads, you have to use your best judgement and stay informed as best you can, on the weather conditions and also the road conditions. VDOT has a neat tool: You can call 511 from any cell phone in the state, and get info about road conditions on major routes. There’s also an app for smartphones — called VDOT511 — that’s free. 511Virginia.org also provides a list of roads that are closed, or snow covered or coated with spots of patchy snow and ice.
Public school closing protocol
According to the annually-updated inclement weather closing procedure for the Rappahannock County Public School System:
“The RCPS Superintendent or designee makes the final decisions on schedule changes in consultation with the RCPS Transportation Supervisor, who physically checks bus routes and verifies road conditions,” the release states, noting that input from other pertinent government agencies such as the local Sheriff’s Office and VDOT is solicited when appropriate. Once a schedule change is made RCPS central office staff members are assigned notification responsibilities including website update, auto calls to parents and staff, and notification of news media.
In the event of extreme winter weather, the RCPS snow removal team is responsible for clearing parking lots and sidewalks to ensure safe access to schools upon their reopening. The snow removal team is led by the Transportation Supervisor and includes both building’s custodial staff.