It’s Wednesday morning, February 12, and all over Charlottesville—in fact, up and down much of the East Coast—residents are making storm preparations, snapping up groceries and rock salt by the ton. While the storm—dubbed “Pax” by the Weather Channel and “Snochi” by the Olympic-minded Twitterverse—is a Nor’easter created by converging air masses in a low pressure area, it’s a high pressure situation for meteorologists. Travis Koshko is taking it in stride.
“The closer to the start of the storm, the calmer I get,” said Koshko, Newsplex’s chief meteorologist since 2008. The 6’5″ forecaster has become a recognizable figure after ushering this area through other major weather disasters including the near blizzards of 2009-10 and the devastation of the derecho in the summer of 2012. Standing in the Newsplex newsroom alongside a bank of three computer monitors displaying various weather forecasting data, Koshko is relaxed enough to crack a joke.
“I’ve never figured out the reasoning behind stockpiling bread, milk, eggs and butter unless you really like French toast,” he quipped, moments before stepping in front of the “green screen,” a wall that through the magic of television will appear to viewers as a map, where he delivered an exact one minute and 45 second account of the weather for the noon news before returning to our interview without missing a beat. There’s something mesmerizing about weather news, not the least of which is the choreography of the forecasts. But talking to Koshko, you see just how complicated predicting a winter front can be.
“With storms, it’s not necessarily what’s happening here at the surface,” he explained. “What happens 10,000, 20,000, even 50,000 feet above the the surface will affect what happens down here.”
Today, before a flake had fallen, Koshko was confident in his prediction of 8 to 12 inches of snow accumulation, based on the “consistency between weather models,” but he also knew that even a slight shift could change his forecast drastically, something that’s already happened a few times this winter.
“If it wiggles 25 miles, it makes the difference between a lot of snow and a lot of rain,” he said. “Storm path is so critical.”
At 36, Koshko’s been a weatherman for 14 years, fulfilling a childhood dream sparked by the gift of a NOAA radio when he was in fifth grade. And while his meteorology training at Penn State University back in the late 1990s taught him how to analyze the algorithms used to forecast weather, there’s another significant tool added to his arsenal in recent years: social media.
Call it “snow brain” or “SnO-CD.” Whatever term you use, there’s no denying that Americans have become ever more obsessed with weather, and sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have turned us all into amateur meteorologists, reporting minute-by-minute storm updates in a blizzard of posts with local hashtags for the recent storm like #CAValanche, #SnOMG and #Snotunda.
For Koshko and other meteorologists, this army of amateurs is a blessing and a curse.
“I’ve got eyes everywhere because of social media,” he said, noting that among his bank of computer screens is one showing his Twitter feed. “I get pictures, storm reports, and verifications.”
The downside, however, is the fact that incorrect information can also spread like wildfire. He mentions a Facebook weather page that, more than a week before Pax hit, called for 25 to 35 inches in the Charlottesville area.
There’s something about a worst-case scenario that gets folks especially riled up.
“If I say we’re going to get three to six inches, everyone remembers the six,” said Koshko, who started his career in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where heavy amounts of snow are frequent. While he has a jocular on-air personality, he’s dead serious about accuracy, he said, since it has an impact on almost every aspect of everyone’s life from travel, to work, to school plans. For some businesses, weather makes a big difference in the bottom line.
He recalled one late spring forecast in which he was the only meteorologist who called for overnight frost—a prediction that turned out to be accurate.
“A florist called me and said, ‘You saved me $30,000,’” Koshko recalled.
He’s also quick to point out that going out on a limb doesn’t always end well for a meteorologist. Back in 2001, when Koshko was still a rookie weatherman in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia meteorologist John Bolaris felt the scorn of viewers when he predicted an approaching storm could bring snow measured in feet not inches. “The Storm of the Century,” read the feed during a newscast days before the storm delivered just a wimpy few inches of mixed precipitation.
“He got death threats,” said Koshko, shaking his head.
In Charlottesville, in the hours before the storm, there were still some who doubted it would bring the large accumulation that Koshko and other area meteorologists were predicting. Albemarle County announced they’d closed schools for Thursday on Wednesday afternoon, but the City of Charlottesville was a holdout until dinner time on Wednesday, after the snow had already started.
“I’ve lived in Charlottesville for 40 years,” said Assistant Superintendent Jim Henderson, recalling a number of times when snow was called for but never materialized. “I won’t cancel school until I see snow.”
Grocery and hardware stores bore the brunt of the pre-storm consumer onslaught. At Martin Hardware on Preston Avenue before lunchtime, a line of at least a dozen people had formed, with shovels, scrapers, and sleds the most frequent purchase. Rock salt and propane heaters were already gone.
A few hours later at Reid Super Save Market, the bottled water and bread aisles were nearly picked clean, and the checkout lines were buzzing with amateur weather predictors. Shoppers were hauling bags to the bus stop and pushing overflowing carts through the parking lot, greeting one another and making friendly bets on snowfall totals.
“I think we’ll get it this time,” said Tamala Green, clutching a grocery bag full of deli meat, eggs, and milk and eyeing the sky’s thickening white clouds. “I can feel it in my bones.”
Tamikka Crewe was less convinced, laughing as she helped her family load up the Ford Escape.
“I really don’t think it’s coming this time either,” she said. But snow or no snow, the grocery run wasn’t done in vain. “I’m kind of an eater, so I don’t mind,” she laughed.
Thirty minutes later, as the flakes began to stick to the roads, Trader Joe’s was also bustling with shoppers stocking up on bread, milk, eggs, and plenty of booze. And apparently every Millennial in town made quesadillas last Thursday, because the store was fresh out of white flour tortillas, shredded cheddar cheese, and hot pico de gallo.
UVA student Evie Kling’s shopping list included peanut butter, eggs, and sundried tomato chicken sausages. But as the snow quickly began accumulating, groceries were the least of her concerns.
“All I want is for classes to be canceled tomorrow,” she said. (She got her wish and then some, as UVA shut down Thursday and Friday.)
After a foot of snow fell between Wednesday night and Thursday morning—the upper end of Koshko’s prediction—the precipitation changed to freezing rain and sleet, and anyone hoping for the storm to end may have briefly been encouraged when Koshko forecasted at noon on Thursday that most of the snowfall was over, thanks to the predicted afternoon temperature of 33.
Not quite. In fact, the “comma head” of the storm system, a curved tail that swept back across Central Virginia later on Thursday afternoon, put another four to six inches on the ground before the last of the snow cleared out. It was the only part of the storm that surprised Koshko.
“I thought it would be about half of that,” he said on Friday, but he wasn’t worried about any Bolaris-like backlash from the public.
“In terms of storm impact, what’s four or five more inches when you’ve already got a foot?” he said. “We did great on the timing of storm, and got the point across that this was going to be a significant weather event.”
Most agreed, too, that it could have been worse. While travel was limited by road conditions into the weekend, only one Dominion Virginia customer was without power on Friday, and while Virginia State Police were summoned 663 times in the Appomattox district, which includes Charlottesville and Albemarle, there were no traffic fatalities in our area.
On Twitter and Facebook, countless photos suggested that even as the storm brought inconvenience and lots of shoveling, there was plenty of camaraderie found as well in snowball fights, sledding, making snowmen and snowwomen, and drinking lots of cocoa, wine, and hot toddies. Central Virginia finally got its winter storm.
Maybe it’s that sense of interconnectedness that makes a big storm exciting, as more than one person interviewed for this article mentioned the way a storm can bring people together.
Soaked and cold after an afternoon of sledding in North Downtown, 28-year-old Margaret Marshall ended up in Meade Park with a friend as the second round of snow was coming down hard. She wasn’t complaining as she took photos and posted them to Facebook.
“My favorite thing about weather,” she said, “is that it happens to everybody.”—With reporting by Laura Ingles and Graelyn Brashear
Big dig: What does it take to clear thousands of miles of roads after a snowstorm?
Judy Mueller is from Buffalo, New York. “Six feet of snow is no big deal to me,” said Charlottesville’s director of public works.
But after almost three decades of watching Central Virginia’s winter dramas, she gets that people react to it a little differently here. After a storm, they want to see pavement—fast.
“I think that if you didn’t grow up with this, and you aren’t used to it, somehow you think that magically, government can fix this,” she said.
A foot of snow tests the limits of the city’s abilities, said Mueller, but Charlottesville is getting better at winter storm response.
“The whole science of snow is evolving,” she said. Since the blizzard of 2010, the city has started pre-treating streets with salt brine instead of scattering crystals as snow starts falling, a method that’s not only more effective, it’s far cheaper. You need less salt, she said, and the work can be done 48 hours in advance and without racking up overtime—a big deal, considering labor costs are a big chunk of the expense.
But once the white stuff starts sticking, it comes down to manpower and machines. Main roads and snow emergency routes get priority, and then resources are turned to residential streets. Pushing snow off city streets becomes more a math problem than anything else: With 40 people and 31 plows, how many back-to-back 12-hour shifts will it take?
The public works department shifted into 24-hour mode on Wednesday, Mueller said, and was still at it on Friday. Each plow operator is assigned a route and sticks to it. No neighborhoods get special treatment—despite what people off Ridge Street and along Evergreen Avenue might have been thinking Friday morning.
“We get to them when we get to them,” Mueller said. “Is it equal all the time? Probably not. But we will get to everybody.”
The Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for roads in Albemarle County (a fact inevitably lost on some people in Charlottesville’s urban ring, who regularly harangue city workers about their unplowed county streets, said Mueller), and the agency faces a challenge of a different scale.
Albemarle has about 2,300 miles of road, when you take multi-lane highways into account, said VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter. To tackle that and the rest of the streets in the nine-county Culpeper District, VDOT calls on about 400 people and assembles an army of up to 800 individual pieces of equipment, from farmers’ tractors to a massive snow blower with a 6′ by 6′ maw.
The consensus: In all, the Big One of 2014 wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
“The good thing with this one—and my fingers were crossed the entire time—was that we didn’t lose power,” said Mueller. “That’s huge. When people lose power and cable, they get ugly. They’re only restless now.”—Graelyn Brashear