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Heavy Equipment Called to Duty During Blizzard of ’96

Wed January 18, 2006 - National Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

Ten years ago, the snow was so deep that the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) normal fleet couldn’t handle the job.

Massive snow blowers, bulldozers and motorgraders were called into service to churn through 30 in. of snow during the Blizzard of ’96, which hit Jan. 6.

VDOT crews and contractors battled 2 ft. of snow — and sometimes more — and winds that blew 26 knots leaving 12-ft. snow drifts. VDOT’s Transportation Emergency Operations Center fielded more than 135,000 calls during the snow emergency of Jan. 6 to 13, 1996.

While statewide weather conditions were clearly different 10 years to the day later, the memories of that storm are still as fresh as a snow-covered mountain for many VDOT employees.

One estimate of snow removed by crews in Salem District alone was 8 million tons (7.3 million t). Within approximately three days of the blizzard, it was apparent that major machinery was needed to handle the snow volume in the Roanoke and New River valleys. Snow blowers, bulldozers and motorgraders were dispatched to clear narrow paths through the approximately 30 in. of snow.

Snow blowers weren’t pressed into service again in this region for approximately 10 years when they were turned loose on 10-ft. snow drifts created by a late February 2005 storm.

In order to combat big snow storms such as this one, VDOT relied on in-house snow removal workers as well as independent contractors. In 1996, 6,000 VDOT employees or contract employees were plowing, sanding and salting for seven consecutive days or more.

The Lynchburg District received as much as 21 in. of snow in the initial blast in some areas. Schools were closed for a week or more.

Staunton District employees noted in their post-snow critique that high-volume snow events such as this one present unique challenges.

“There was nowhere to place the snow,” Staunton operators said during the critique. “Snow plows couldn’t get the snow over the ridge of the snow bank.”

Bristol District crews were trapped at the Fort Blackmore Area Headquarters by downed trees. They worked 37 hours straight cutting through trees and continuing to help people, including a man with heart problems who was stranded.

VDOT’s Fredericksburg District averaged 20 to 25 in. of snow and ice that fell throughout the 14-county region. Snow drifts averaged 4 to 6 ft. high on the interstate and other open areas on primary and secondary routes.

“Motorists abandoned their vehicles on the interstate, which hampered plowing efforts,” said Fredericksburg Public Affairs Officer Tina Bundy. “Schools were closed for five to 10 days on average.”

In Loudoun County, a husband and wife were stranded in their car for 18 hours because of snow drifts. Their cell phone did not work until the 18th hour of their ordeal. Police called VDOT and Northern Virginia District sent a crew with a loader and grader (with a drift plow) to rescue the couple.

The Richmond area got 9.5 in. of snow. Jim Smith, now Richmond District maintenance engineer, remembers the Blizzard of ’96 well.

“I was resident engineer in Chesterfield at the time,” Smith said. “As the event went on, we hired every truck, loader and motorgrader we could find. I believe at one time, we had 52 hired motorgrader operators working in our residency. And, even with that level of effort, we couldn’t accomplish much in the subdivisions. The ice bond was so hard that the motorgrader blades were pretty ineffective in cutting it off. We ate up a lot of blades trying.”

Culpeper Public Affairs Officer Dee Brooking and her husband volunteered for day-shift switchboard duty at the Culpeper district office. They went from no calls on Jan. 5 to all lines lit up without a break by Jan. 8.

The price tag from this one statewide snow event: $39.6 million. The snow removal budget for the entire year in 1996 was $43.5 million.

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