By Happy Carlock
Two snowstorms hit the Rockbridge Area this winter, causing one serious car accident, as many as 10 lost school days and about 22 total inches of snow on local roads.
While some southern cities such as Atlanta faced complete shutdowns, Lexington and Rockbridge County officials were prepared and quick to respond to the storms.
“I think that every time we do this we get a little bit better at our response as far as preparing for and then being active during the storm,” Rockbridge County Emergency Management Coordinator Robert Foresman said. “Everything went well with the storm, and of course we’ll continue to learn from this and improve.”
Storm’s impact on schools
But the storms took a toll on local schools. Rockbridge County schools have lost 10 days this year because of snow days while Lexington schools only lost four. Rockbridge County Schools Superintendent Jack Donald attributed the discrepancy to the 600 miles of county roads that make it difficult to get buses out when the roads are icy.
“We’re in a situation where we’re transporting a much larger number of students over a much greater area across a number of roads that simply can’t be cleaned very quickly,” Donald said.
Each school district determines its own calendar. Virginia state policy requires schools to make up the first five lost school days. If schools miss more than that, then they have to add only one school day for every two days lost.
Lexington City Schools Superintendent Dan Lyons said four extra school days were built into the Lexington school calendar, so the days will not have to be made up. The county also built four extra days into its school calendar, but will still have to make up three days at the end of the year. As of now, county students will be in school through June 11.
Lyons and Donald did not have any complaints from parents about the decision to close schools.
“We’re hoping things are pretty much done and we’ll be able to end on schedule,” Lyons said.
Emergency management prepared residents
Foresman said no power outages were reported in the Rockbridge Area during either storm, and there was only one major car accident. Virginia State Police recorded a combined 1,833 traffic crashes and three deaths in the state during the two storms.
Overall, Lexington Police Officer Logan Davis thinks city residents reacted well to the storm by staying off the roads.
“There was some heavy traffic when the snow started coming down with everybody leaving work,” he said. “But about 5 or 6 p.m., traffic was pretty much done.”
The city and county ran a joint emergency operations center at the Lexington Police Department during the Jan. 21 and Feb. 13 snowstorms. Foresman declared a local emergency at 6 p.m. on Feb. 12, which lasted until 6 a.m. on Feb. 14.
“I think the biggest challenge was making sure that we got all the appropriate information out to the citizens about how dangerous the storm could be, things they needed to do to be prepared for the storm, and requesting their assistance in checking on neighbors,” Foresman said.
Emergency Management kept citizens updated through Facebook, Twitter, the news media, and 2-1-1 VIRGINIA, a number that citizens could call for general information about the storm.
Lexington City Manager Jon Ellestad said the biggest challenge the city faced was clearing city roads.
“Within a normal snowfall of three or four inches, we just push the snow to the side and that’s it,” Ellestad said. “When you’ve got a foot or foot and half, we also have to move the snow out of the downtown area so that there are places for cars to park and get it out of the parking lots.”
The Rockbridge County Department of Transportation was in charge of plowing county roads, while Lexington and Buena Vista relied on their Public Works departments.
Lexington Pubic Works is funded in two parts: First, the city receives a set dollar amount of money from the state for maintaining major city roads. Ellestad said any snow removal expenses are charged to that fund.
“All that means at the end of the year is that if we’ve charged quite a bit in any given year, that means we’ve got less money to do road maintenance like repaving the surfaces,” Ellestad said.
The second part of Public Works funding, which covers the cost of clearing non-state maintained roads, is included in the city’s general fund.
“The amount of money we’ve used so far this winter really does not exceed the amount we budgeted for snow removal, so there’s really no impact on city taxes,” Ellestad said.