On Saturday they dug in; over the next several days, they dug us out. As the record-setting blizzard of 2003 blanketed the region with nearly 30 inches of snow last week, a resolute force of Johns Hopkins staff waged a seemingly endless battle to keep university paths cleared, through roads open and parking lots and entrances accessible.
Working around the clock for three days straight, the various grounds, facilities and custodial crews stood toe-to-toe with Mother Nature's full fury in an endeavor to reopen the university and keep people and property safe.
"Our goal was to get us open a.s.a.p., while not taking any unnecessary risks," said David Ashwood, director of plant operations on the Homewood campus. "So I was awfully proud that Johns Hopkins was the only area university opened by Wednesday. If this storm was a race, then I think I can safely say we won."
The race, or battle, against the blizzard began on Feb. 15, or what snow removal crews refer to as "Day 1." With only a relatively light amount of precipitation to contend with that day, most of the snow was cleared by early evening. Knowing the worst was yet to come, however, many personnel who were called in on Saturday slept overnight on-site.
At Johns Hopkins, each university campus deals with snow removal differently due to its size and location and the number of available personnel.
The Montgomery and Columbia campuses leave the clearing of walkways and parking lots predominantly to outside contractors. At the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, the six-person Facilities Management staff, with the help of two snow blowers and one snow plow, are responsible for the Nitze and Rome buildings, at 1740 and 1619 Massachusetts Ave., N.W. The staff crews at Homewood, Eastern, JHMI, Peabody and the Applied Physics Laboratory mostly tackle the snow themselves, aided by a force of contractors whose numbers vary by the amount of accumulation.
For the past two years, the snow field general at Homewood has been John Testa, grounds manager. Those who braved the conditions early last week would recognize Testa as the man riding the Toolcat, a spunky miniature four-wheel utility vehicle that is one part snow plow, one part pickup truck. With either CB radio or cell phone in hand, Testa coordinated the hectic, week-long snow removal effort at both the Homewood and Eastern campuses
On Day 2, Sunday's big storm, Testa and most of his crew got to work around 3 a.m. They worked the next 39 hours straight, stopping only to eat and rest.
"We are always here constantly from when the first snowflake falls to when it's all been properly cleared," Testa said. "We don't stop." On Sunday, neither did the snow.
Testa said that in trying to keep paths, roads and parking lots cleared, vehicles and crews had to "go round and round" as the constant snowfall kept covering what they had just cleared. On Monday, the height of activity, a force of 65 men and women struggled to remove snow using everything from shovels to 30-ton-payload front-end loaders. The majority of snow removed was dumped in V-Lot and temporarily behind the Wyman Park Medical Center, where on Monday sat a mound nearly 100 feet long, 40 feet wide and 15 feet tall. To keep paths clear and ice-free, an estimated 100,000 pounds of salt was used for the Homewood/Eastern cleanup. At the peak of activity, the cost for labor, supplies and equipment has been estimated at $2,600 per hour.
Testa said that while spirits remained high throughout the process, the magnitude of the storm did raise some doubts as to when, or if, the staff would ever go home.
"At one point we thought it would just never end," he said. "It wasn't until Tuesday, really, that we saw the light at the end of the tunnel."
Ray Grose, the snow emergency coordinator at APL, said that the snow fell about an inch per hour on Sunday in Laurel, Md., where the facility is located, which led to its officially closing at 3 p.m. The Lab remained closed for the next two days, although some sponsored activities continued.
Grose, who has worked at APL for 17 years, said that only the storm of 1996 could compare with the recent blizzard in terms of difficult cleanup, and this one wins hands down.
"It was certainly an uphill battle for us," said Grose, who oversaw a crew of 45 staff members and nine contractors. "For one 24-hour period it felt like we were constantly clearing snow. I would watch a plow go up a road and have to turn right around and go back because it was covered again."
Grose said that what kept his "troops" going was a steady diet of coffee and hot chocolate, in addition to three hot meals a day in the cafeteria. By Wednesday, with 95 percent of the lab's lots and walkways cleared, the staff were finally sent home.
"I'm amazed at what we were able to do, given the conditions," Grose said. "Our staff really takes pride in the work they do and getting this place to look as good as it possibly can. Still, I know everyone was looking forward to the comfort of their own bed."
During a snow storm, the maintenance of the university and hospital facilities on the JHMI campus is a true team effort. The work is performed by the two entities' Facilities Management personnel and staff from Broadway Services. Robert Kuhn, the hospital's assistant director for facilities, said it required a herculean effort on the part of his 25-person crew to clear entrances, walkways, four garages and the streets surrounding the clinical buildings. "Our biggest challenge was clearing the tops of the garages and the helicopter pad. Just an unbelievable amount of snow piled up," Kuhn said. "Emergency vehicles and patients need to get through all the time, so we couldn't rest for a second."
Although the university was closed on Monday and Tuesday, the show went on at Peabody as it was auditions week. With dozens of would-be students and their families set to arrive, the school had to remain open and accessible all week.
Joseph Brant, Peabody's director of facility and plant services, made his 40-mile commute on Saturday to make sure paths were cleared, the parking lot was open, and the boilers would be running the next day. For the next 76 hours, Brant, alongside two plant operations staff and two student volunteers, shoveled, salted and shoveled some more.
Realizing there could be early arrivals for the auditions, Brant said that keeping the entrance to the parking lot clear was a high priority. Despite the group's best efforts, an auditioning student and her father arrived early on Monday and their car did get caught in the snow and had to be pushed out.
"He actually apologized for getting stuck. He said, we're from Texas and we're not used to snow," Brant said. "I said, we're from Maryland, and we're not used to snow either."
For Rolando Perez, director of facilities management at SAIS, the process of clearing snow came down to hours upon hours of manual labor. With only two snow blowers and one plow to clear two buildings and a long back alley, Perez and his staff did most of the work with shovels.
"I felt fine at the time, but right now it hurts all over," Perez said on Thursday. "My muscles are so sore that if I sit down I have to grab onto someone to help me up. Yes, it was a lot of hard work, but we're proud we got it done."
Steven Knapp, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, says he commends the efforts of the hundreds of personnel involved in last week's snow cleanup.
"We are all very grateful for the extra dedication they've shown, faced up against what is for now the storm of the century," Knapp said. "As the situation unfolded, we had people tirelessly working around the clock, doing a tremendous job enabling the university to continue on with its important mission. It's never a trivial mater to close, and to have only missed those two days was a remarkable feat."