Take a ride on a UB snowplow with head grounds supervisor Jim Scripp on a normal winter day.
Published February 8, 2019
At this time of year, lake effect snow normally affects areas south of UB’s three campuses. But the circumstances were different early last week, said Jay Roorbach, the university’s director of emergency management.
“The ability to predict weather patterns and storms will never be an exact science, especially with the phenomenon of lake effect snow,” said Roorbach, who leads UB’s Incident Management Team, which includes representatives from University Facilities, the offices of the Provost and President, University Police, Parking & Transportation Services, University Communications, and Environment, Health & Safety.
“However, the one constant aspect of this weather event was the dangerous wind chills, and drifting and blowing snow. The National Weather Service thought that because Lake Erie was not completely frozen over, the system would be able to pick up moisture from the lake.”
And so began the lead-up to what became the Blizzard of 2019, a snowstorm that directly impacted UB’s three campuses more than any other in recent memory.
And while UB cancelled classes and activities for Wednesday, Jan. 30, and Thursday, Jan. 31, not all employees had a snow day. UBNow checked in with some of the people who kept UB on track during the storm.
On Monday, Jan. 28, when the National Weather Service first issued a winter weather advisory — which escalated to a warning early on Tuesday — UB Emergency Management began gathering operational details of activities, events, classes and other information on what was going on for the week. “This information gives our team a good understanding of what potentially could be impacted by a disruption due to weather,” Roorbach said.
He noted that because January had been a snowier month than usual, UB Emergency Management “was already at a high state of readiness and the lines of communication between different operational parts of our organization had been active for most of the month.”
With the storm expected to begin at 4 pm on Tuesday, Roorbach organized a 1 p.m. conference call with members of the Incident Management Team. “On that call we discussed the weather forecast, a snapshot of what was happening on all three campuses, and the potential for disruptions due to the storm,” he said. “Probably the most important thing we discussed was our ability to ensure the safety of anyone on campus or coming to UB.”
The purpose of these conference calls, he said, is to keep everyone on the team updated on the situation and provide a recommendation to the president, “based on some rather exhaustive due diligence, whether to change scheduled operations or continue to operate normally.”
Monday afternoon’s conference call was the first of five or six calls Roorbach facilitated with the Incident Management Team over the three days of the storm.
Keeping the university community informed is a key element of UB’s emergency response plan, and eight employees from University Communications worked around the clock to get the word out to faculty, staff and students, as well as to the broader Western New York community. They developed messaging, sent alerts, posted service updates to the emergency website, monitored social media and responded to inquiries from news media, as well as contacted the media with updates about UB’s status during the blizzard, said John DellaContrada, interim vice president for university communications.
DellaContrada noted that the UB Alert system which informs subscribers via emails and texts to emergency situations on campus, now has more than 17,000 subscribers. In addition, the emergency website, which UC also maintains, received more than 50,000 unique pageviews from Jan. 28 through Feb. 1, he said.
University Facilities maintains three separate shifts of snow removal staff, with more than 40 pieces of equipment ready to clear roads, parking lots and walkways, said Chris Donacik, assistant director. The cancellation of classes allowed crews to more easily do their jobs and get the campus ready when classes resumed on Friday, he said.
Donacik noted that three to six members of each of the skilled trades departments — including carpentry, lock, mason, electric and the plumbing shop — also were working during the storm.
Custodians worked to clear snow on fire exits and in entryways and stairwells, and also continued to keep campus buildings clean. And employees at the Chilled Water and the McKay Heating plants monitored utilities, including possible frozen conditions in the buildings due to the sub-zero temperatures.
While the weather impacted the volume of certain types of calls UB Police received during the storm, “just about everything we do during a storm is a normal duty for our officers,” said Chief of Police Chris J. Bartolomei.
Bartolomei noted that as long as the campus is closed and people heed the warnings to stay inside and avoid travel, “we can adequately service calls for assistance and any special duties required due to the weather.”
“Most people did heed the warnings,” he said, “but we still needed to assist numerous drivers who ended up sliding off the road or became involved in a minor accident.”
Driving conditions were especially bad during sudden bursts of wind that severely limited visibility, he said, noting that UB officers had to stop a few drivers who lost their bearings and were heading the wrong way on Millersport Highway and the Audubon Parkway.
Police responded to only one serious accident, and no one was injured, he said.
Campus Dining & Shops staff “came together to get the job done,” said Ray Kohl, CDS marketing manager.
To ensure that there would be an adequate supply of food for students during the storm, CDS asked vendors to move up their deliveries before the weather deteriorated, Kohl said. “Many were able to accommodate us,” he said.
About 300 employees worked in the dining centers during the storm, including many from CDS’ retail operations, most of which had been closed, Kohl said.
And with the possibility that travel bans would be implemented in some towns, staff were offered housing at the Marriott for the duration of the storm, he said. Forty to 50 employees took CDS up on the offer, he said, calling it “a neat bonding experience” for employees.
UB’s dining centers were open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the storm, and became a place for students to gather, Kohl said. “There was a lot of community between (CDS) staff and students,” he said, “a feeling that we’re all in this together.”
That community also extended to UB snowplow drivers, who enjoyed a meal in the dining center in Goodyear Hall, thanks to CDS manager Nahel Gerges, Kohl said.
Campus Living staff also “rose to the occasion to take care of our students” during the storm, said Tom Tiberi, director of Campus Living. About 60 staff members, including those who live on campus, as well as those who were able to make it in to work, “did whatever job that needed to be done to support our students,” he said.
So, how did UB fare during the storm?
“In my opinion, UB responded well to the severe weather,” Roorbach said. “Obviously when classes and activities are cancelled, there is a lack of activity on our campuses and that allows University Facilities to focus on keeping the campus as clear from winter weather hazards as possible.
“Looking back, the fact that no incidents or injuries were reported at UB almost confirms our wish to keep everyone safe,” he said. “It also is encouraging that the UB community heeded the notice to be careful and take any protective measures necessary to stay safe during the storm.”
Although the university was closed on Wednesday, Jan. 30, it was not officially closed by the governor, therefore employees had to charge the day to their vacation accruals. I'm quite surprised, since the governor was in town and there were travel advisories issued.
I personally feel this day should not have been charged to our accruals, since I'm sure most employees and students did not attempt to travel when there was notification that the university was closed.