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Weather Journal: Big snow came back in a big way 10 years ago

Weather Journal: Big snow came back in a big way 10 years ago


Christine Saunders was expecting a Christmas child. But there were signs on the morning of Dec. 18, 2009, that Hayden Saunders might be ready to enter the world a little early.

She called in sick to her job at Deb’s Lemonade. The shop was closing early anyway, she was told, because it was supposed to snow. “It is, but you never know,” Saunders told her employer.

It was the most fearsome snow forecast in the decade Saunders had lived in Roanoke, with more than a foot expected that Friday and Saturday. That was more than had fallen in the three previous winters combined. Some disbelief was understandable.

Snow wasn’t all that Saunders was in some disbelief about. It was late afternoon, when snow was already falling, before she started to the hospital at her medical clinic’s urging.

Already hours into labor, she drove herself though heavy snow to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. She couldn’t reach her husband Chris at his job in Salem, or reach his parents.

She finally called her father, Steve Kelley, serving as an Anglican minister in Texas at the time. He couldn’t do much other than continue to try to reach his son-in-law as his daughter went into the hospital.

“It was like something out of a movie,” she said. “There was screaming everywhere. So many people had gone into labor because of the lowering pressure with the blizzard. Nurses were walking around, talking about how they weren’t going anywhere, they were stuck.”

Chris Saunders arrived at the hospital that evening, taking two hours to drive what would normally take 20 minutes.

By the time Hayden Saunders arrived just before midnight, a foot of snow had already fallen on Roanoke, and it was still piling up, on the way to 17.8 inches by midmorning the following day.

He wasn’t quite a Christmas child, but rather, as his grandfather Steve Kelley dubbed him, he was the “Blizzard Boy.”

End of a snow drought

By strict meteorological standards, the Dec. 18-19, 2009, snowstorm was not a blizzard — the winds were not strong enough. But it was far more snow than many young Roanokers had ever experienced.

In the 10 years of Hayden Saunders’ life, Roanoke has had three more snowstorms of a foot or more and four others of at least 8 inches.

But a 10-year-old, or even a teenager, on Dec. 17, 2009, had a much different growing-up experience with snow in the Roanoke and New River valleys.

Roanoke had not had a snowfall of 8 or more inches in 13 years, 10 months and 14 days on Dec. 17, 2009. Blacksburg had not had more than 10 inches of snow in any storm in 11 years, 10 months and 19 days before getting 14 inches in that December 2009 storm.

Some school districts had taken so few snow days in prior years that their state exemptions to start the school year before Labor Day were in jeopardy.

It just didn’t snow like it used to, those children’s parents and grandparents declared. They were right, especially if they were thinking of the 1960s, when Roanoke’s least snowy winter (20.7 inches in 1964-65) had more snow than 11 of the previous 13 winters before late 2009.

But the Dec. 18-19, 2009, snowstorm turned the tide. Not only did the region get the expected 1 to 2 feet in that storm, but two more storms in the 8- to 12-inch range — both close to 10 inches for Roanoke — occurred later that winter, ramping 2009-10 up to 43.1 inches at Roanoke, the seventh snowiest winter since 1912.

Blacksburg got 53.6 inches for the winter, the second snowiest officially since 1952 — though records for the extremely snowy winter of 1959-60 are partly missing.

The 2010s haven’t been as snowy as the 1960s, but have had snowfall comparable to most previous decades. The 2013-14 through 2015-16 winters were the first time since the late 1970s that Roanoke had received 20 inches or more total in three consecutive years.

Big snow came back in a big way 10 years ago today.

‘A disaster movie’

Retired Air Force Col. Doug Anderson of Dublin was serving in Iraq when his son J.D., a Virginia Tech freshman, was trying to fly back to what was then the family’s home at Hanscom Air Force Base near Boston. He was scheduled to fly out of Roanoke on Dec. 18, 2009, but was able to switch his schedule to a 6 a.m. flight from a later one, staying overnight with a friend in Goodview.

“He has traveled a lot since then, but he still rates the security line that morning as the worst he’s ever endured,” Anderson wrote in an email. “Obviously others had the same idea as he, and of course that led to the flight being overbooked.”

The college student resisted a $500 offer to give up his seat, and landed in Boston “before the first flakes had fallen in Virginia.” But not long after, J.D. learned his original flight had been canceled.

“So even though only one of my family actually lived it, and even he never saw the snow it produced, all the family remembers the ‘blizzard’ of ’09,” Anderson said.

The December 2009 snowstorm tangled transportation as many college students, like J.D., tried to get home after finishing the fall semester. Flights were canceled and delayed, and hundreds of vehicles were stranded on the region’s interstates, with many drivers sleeping in their cars through the snowy night.

“There are trucks behind me, in front of me and beside me,” truck driver Andrew Launderville told The Roanoke Times about midnight Dec. 18, after being stuck for two hours at mile marker 128 on Interstate 81 in Montgomery County. “It’s solid white out here.”

“It’s a parking lot. Nobody’s moving,” driver Tiffany Rosenberger of Chattanooga, Tennessee, told The Roanoke Times by cellphone near mile marker 118 outside Christiansburg shortly after midnight Dec. 19, 2009.

More than 300 motorists sought shelter at George Wythe High School in Wytheville, where Interstate 77 and I-81 cross. Another 60 were sheltered in the Fort Lewis fire station near Salem.

Mike Strickler of Lexington tried to talk his daughter Amanda into staying in Northern Virginia until the storm had passed, but she and her friend Laura Henson (now her sister-in-law), who had just flown back for a break from a Peace Corps mission in Mozambique, insisted on driving through the heart of the snowstorm.

They followed a plow south on I-81, covering the last 80 miles in four hours and reaching Lexington at 11 p.m., less than half an hour before the interstate was closed.

Strickler had lost his wallet in the snow while clearing off his car earlier that evening.

“Now, I have no wallet and our daughter and her friend are driving in a blizzard on I-66 and I-81. I have no idea what my blood pressure hit that afternoon and evening,” Strickler said.

Going the other way up I-81 past Lexington was Mike Tilley of Bonsack, in a Chevy Suburban with his wife Lisa, “our three teenage daughters, two large golden retrievers, luggage and Christmas presents.” He described the scene on I-81 northbound as a “scene from a disaster movie” with “cars, trucks and SUVs stuck in the median and the right shoulder every few feet.”

Driving slowly but steadily, Tilley was able to punch out of the north edge of the snow at Harrisonburg — “suddenly and magically, as if we had busted through an invisible curtain in a single moment” — and make it to his sister-in-law’s home in Northern Virginia 45 minutes before the snow started there.

Austria native Gregor Wollman “refused to be intimidated by a little bit of snow.” But his effort to deliver his then 12-year-old daughter Jessica and a friend from Blacksburg to Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theater in time to be part of a performance of “Annie Jr.” was in vain as they took hours to cover the normally 45-minute distance.

Late for the show, they still got to stay in the actors’ housing at the Mill Mountain Theater Atelier, and “woke up to a beautiful winter wonderland, with downtown Roanoke covered under a thick blanket of snow, and we were the first ones out tracing our footprints on the empty Market Place.”

The inability to clear the interstates in a timely manner led to a decision by the Virginia Department of Transportation to fire contractor Infrastructure Corporation of America, which the agency publicly criticized after the storm.

ICA dispatched 50 snowplows on the region’s highways as part of a five-year, $29 million contract. ICA countered that snowfall had reached nearly catastrophic levels, with 3 inches per hour at times, that would have exempted it from its requirement to keep lanes open.

VDOT later reached a settlement with ICA, allowing it to bid on new contracts for VDOT across the state.

Whitewater’s white welcome

Plows couldn’t keep I-81 clear through the snowy overnight, but Salem sent a plow to Roanoke the next day to clear the way for Stagg Bowl competitor Wisconsin-Whitewater to get its buses to the hotel where the team was staying.

The annual NCAA Division III college football national championship game, held at Salem Stadium from 1993 to 2017, had the kickoff of its 2009 game delayed from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 19, because of the heavy snowfall, necessitating it being moved from an ESPN2 telecast to ESPN Classic.

Crews worked through the night to clear the field, but needed some extra time to groom the artificial turf before the game, in which Whitewater defeated Mount Union of Ohio.

“We welcome the snow,” Whitewater quarterback Jeff Donovan said before the game. “We’re from Wisconsin. We’ve played in that before.” Whitewater running back Levell Coppage called it “kind of like home weather.”

Wisconsin and Ohio players may have been used to the snow, but some of their families and fans struggled to make it to the game, getting stuck for hours on West Virginia highways en route.

The weight of the snow collapsed the roof of a home near Hollins, displacing a family. The awning of a gas station on Starkey Road in southwest Roanoke County also collapsed.

In the Roanoke area, the snow was relatively fluffy, leading to only sporadic power outages. A wetter snowfall over the state’s far southwest corner, however, led to many thousands losing electricity and a $25 million effort by Appalachian Power Co. to restore that power.

The Roanoke area was snowbound through that December weekend, but slowly, plowing, shoveling and melting cut into the piles of snow. It stayed white through Christmas, when an all-day cold rain soaked into the remaining snowpack.

That same rain froze onto trees and power lines atop Bent Mountain and into Floyd County, cutting off power for thousands of people who had kept the lights on through the snowstorm.

Lifetime memories

Jeff Copeland’s daughter Lauren and her fiance Mark scheduled their wedding for the third Saturday in December 2009. They had little idea they would be sharing their special weekend with Roanoke’s biggest December snowfall on record, dating to 1912.

The Friday evening wedding rehearsal was ditched in favor of the wedding party walking from the Hotel Roanoke to Nawab’s for the rehearsal dinner.

“It was a great night, we watched the snow fall during dinner, made toasts, and then walked back to the hotel in this stunning snowstorm,” Copeland said.

Saturday “was filled with frantic phone calls, a stranded judge, questionable bus transportation, and nephews and groomsmen shoveling snow to retrieve the wedding dress from our home in Raleigh Court,” Copeland said. “The wedding was wonderful with the snow acting as this sparkling backdrop to the area’s holiday decorations.”

Roanoke Times reporting intern Katelyn Polantz and staff photographer Jared Soares were not thinking marriage yet during their joint assignment to cover the 2009 snowstorm.

“I still have one of the snow photos he took that day of a snow covered Sherwood Avenue framed and it hung in our house for a long time,” said Polantz, now a seasoned journalist covering the Justice Department for CNN. She and Soares, a commercial, journalistic and artistic photographer, were married Nov. 3, 2018.

“It’s still the wildest snowstorm I’ve ever been through,” said Polantz, a western Pennsylvania, native.

The December 2009 snowstorm didn’t bring life to a halt. Babies were born and couples connected.

And, like every other snowstorm, it melted into memories.

Weather Journal appears on Wednesdays.

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Since 2003, Kevin Myatt has penned the weekly Weather Journal column, and since 2006, the Weather Journal blog, which becomes particularly busy with snow. Kevin has edited a book on hurricanes and has helped lead Virginia Tech students on storm chases.

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