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February 18, 2010

Historic snowfall:

Shovel, salt, repeat


Shovel, salt, repeat. That’s been the routine in Pittsburgh this month as Mother Nature continues to batter the region with snow, snow and more snow.

This already has gone down as the snowiest Pittsburgh February on record and is fast closing in on the record for the snowiest month ever in Pittsburgh.

Heavy snows forced closings at four of Pitt’s five campuses — with only the typically snowy Bradford campus weathering the month with no disruptions to date.

The  extreme  weather prompted Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg to issue a Feb. 10 University Update, expressing a tongue-in-cheek hope that, having endured the equivalent of the groundhog’s proverbial six more weeks of winter in only six days, perhaps spring now would arrive more quickly.

On a more serious note, he stated, “Getting this campus community through the past several days has not been easy. All of us owe a particular debt of gratitude to those essential employees who have regularly made their way to campus, whatever obstacles might have stood in their way, to maintain essential activities in the service of others. Their commitment to meeting our collective needs has been inspiring.”

The chancellor noted, “We now have endured one of the worst stretches of winter weather in the history of Western Pennsylvania. However, we have not done so without making some significant concessions to the forces of nature. Just as last weekend’s snowstorm was historic, so were our decisions to close the Oakland campus of the University for three consecutive days.”

John Fedele, associate director of  News, said the costs of the closings still are being tallied.

The University’s reputation for remaining open even under trying conditions led some non-essential staff who hadn’t received word of the closing to fight their way through the storms to get to work.

The University’s emergency notification system, which alerts subscribers by phone or email, was not utilized for the Monday closing. Instead, notification was made through local media.

When the severity of the weather was better recognized, notification messages were sent on Tuesday and Wednesday, Fedele said. Duplicate messages were received in rapid succession on Wednesday, which Fedele explained was “to ensure that everyone got them.”

At a meeting yesterday, several members of the Staff Association Council were critical of that decision.

One member said she saw an announcement on Pitt’s web site Sunday evening that said Monday classes were canceled, but offices remained open. She struggled to get into work on Monday only to learn her office was closed.

Elaine Devlin said that some of the upper management in her department who are UPMC employees were not notified by the University of the closings. “I actually had to let them know that Pitt was closed,” she said.

SAC President Gwen Watkins added that supervisors should take the initiative to alert their staff about closures, especially since some staff do not have Internet access at home. “I am grateful that the emergency notification system was used on the other days, because staff can choose how they are notified,” either by phone or home email address, she said.

stormsewerKKBDecisions on when to use the notification service rest with a group that includes the police chief, the University’s emergency executive Executive Vice Chancellor Jerome Cochran and the chancellor.

SAC members also expressed confusion at the definition of essential personnel, and in several cases did not know whether they themselves were in that category.

Watkins recommended that staff members speak to their supervisors if they are unclear about their status in order to avoid future confusion.

SAC treasurer Angela Coldren said that in her area, Housing and Food Services, most of the staff, such as housekeepers, engineers and food service personnel, obviously are essential because students are on campus and need their services. But others — for example, a staff member who does invoicing or payment processing — may not be. “I think this gives us an opportunity to see how the University can do a better job in saying who’s essential and who’s not, so everyone knows in advance, whether it’s noted on your hire letter or in some other way,” Coldren said.

Sherry Shrum of Public Affairs said there also is confusion about the distinction between those who have to be on campus, and those who can work at home.

Since the first flakes began falling Feb. 5 in Pittsburgh, keeping up with the snow has been a constant battle for Pitt’s Facilities Management crews.

Chuck Turbanic, assistant vice chancellor of facilities maintenance and operations, called the snow removal efforts a never-ending battle since the back-to-back record snowfall (11.4 inches on Feb. 5 and 9.7 inches Feb. 6) put snow crews behind a big white 8-ball.

Turbanic said he’s had 20-40 people — working 16-18 hour days — assigned to snow removal since the initial storm began.

“What is really hard to deal with in fighting this storm is that once we get a handle on opening up an area, we simply have no place to put the snow,” Turbanic said, adding that outside contractors have been enlisted to haul snow to dump sites near the OC lot, the intramural fields and behind Frick Fine Arts.

He said having the Pittsburgh campus closed Feb. 8-10 was helpful because it gave his crews clear access to areas that on a typical weekday would be congested with cars and people.

“With the reduced traffic on campus we were able to move relatively quickly and do our job with minimal interference,” he said.

In just one week, Turbanic said crews spread almost 70 tons of rock salt on University Drive, parking lots and street intersections, and another 60 tons of the purple ice melt on sidewalks and entryways.

Leaky roofs have been reported in a number of buildings including McGowan, Posvar, David Lawrence, Langley, Trees, Thackeray, Old Engineering and Benedum halls. Ice buildup is another concern and crews took steps to remove ice from several buildings, including Thackeray, Eberly and Bellefield halls and the Gardner Steel Conference Center this week.

The snow has caused difficulties with campus trash removal because haulers can’t reach some Dumpsters or traverse snowy city streets.

Turbanic said that even an additional dusting of snow becomes a problem, given the amount that already has fallen. He cited last Friday’s snow, which forced Facilities Management to repeat its salting and plowing efforts in areas that had been cleared the day before, rather than allowing workers to make progress on areas that still needed attention.

With more snow predicted over the next several days, Facilities Management employees are preparing as best they can for what might fall from the sky. “There is not much we can do about preparing for future snows except to make sure our equipment is up and operating and that we have enough product on hand to take care of the sidewalks and entryways,” he said.

Even wishing for the snow to go away comes with a downside.

Turbanic said that when the snow begins to melt, his crews’ concern will turn toward ensuring that roof drains and storm sewers are clear so the melting snow can be carried away. “We may even have to assist in cleaning out some of the storm sewers the city normally takes care of,” he said. “Right now, a lot of them are buried so it’s anyone’s guess as to how the snowmelt will actually affect traffic and pedestrian flow.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow and Peter Hart


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