Blizzard Tales: Mason Employees, Students Face Challenges During Record Snowstorms

Posted: February 23, 2010 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: February 23, 2010 at 11:23 am

By Robin Herron

The George Mason statue wore a snowy white wig during the height of the blizzard. Photo by Venton Chaney, HVAC supervisor in Facilities Management

In a letter to the editor, “Mason Community Prevails Through Record Snowstorms,” published in the Feb. 15 issue of Broadside, Mason President Alan Merten, Vice President for University Life Sandy Scherrens and Senior Vice President Morrie Scherrens commended the entire university community for meeting the unprecedented challenges of the Blizzard of 2010.

“You have all been inconvenienced by the inclement weather,” they wrote, “but somehow you have survived, and during this process have made us all very proud of the Mason family.”

They went on to detail the efforts of Facilities staff, University Police, Housing and Dining Services staff, Parking Services, Recreational and Library staff and Regional Campuses for their efforts to keep the campuses functioning during the storms, as well as to thank students and faculty and staff members generally for adapting to changed schedules and circumstances.

“We express our deepest gratitude for the yeoman efforts of the past few days,” the letter continued. “You have exceeded our greatest expectations. Thank you so much.”

While most university faculty and staff members were able to leave the campuses and go home to ride out the anticipated storms, others with responsibility for the care and supervision of 5,000 resident students did not.

Feeding Snowbound Students

Mason Dining, operated by Sodexo, saw it coming and prepared for the worst — a record-breaking snowstorm — although they didn’t know then how bad it would be.

Denise Ammaccapane, resident district manager for Mason Dining, mobilized her troops on Thursday, Feb. 4, when the blizzard of 2010 was still a faraway blob on meteorologists’ radar screens.

“When we heard on Thursday it might be bad,” Amacapane says, “I told everybody, ‘pack a bag,’ and I rounded up all my managers and all the hourly employees who were willing to stay. We rented an SUV and checked into the Best Western.”

Meanwhile, in anticipation of the storm, Executive Chef Peter Schoebel ordered a huge reserve of food — 21 tons — that was delivered on Friday. “It was just pallets and pallets of food — a lot of staples,” Ammaccapane says. “It took all day to put it all away.”

During the storm, Ammaccapane says, Dining was able to staff Southside, Starbucks, Ike’s and the One Stop Patriot Shop. At Southside, all the food stations were staffed, and Ammaccapane says they served 2,400 people per day, including the Facilities staff members who were working to clear roads and sidewalks, as well as Housing and Residence Life staff who stayed on campus.

The rented Suburban transported staff members to and from the hotel in shifts. “We also picked up some people who lived nearby,” says Ammaccapane.

“We didn’t miss a beat,” Ammaccapane says proudly. “The only thing we did differently was to use paper plates, and that’s because it’s an eight-person operation to wash dishes.”

Ammaccapane says Dining also made adjustments during the storm. When the One Stop Patriot Shop sold out, staff members transferred supplies from the Johnson Center Express, which was closed, to restock the convenience store.

“The students were very appreciative of what we did,” she says. “I’m always pleasantly surprised. It makes it worth doing it.”

Although the experience provided lessons on what to do if it ever happened again, Ammaccapane says she’s not looking forward to a repeat. A Florida native, she says, “I actually turned down positions in Boston and Connecticut to come to Mason. I said it was too cold, and they had too much snow!”

Fighting Cabin Fever

Like Dining Services, Housing and Residence Life staff members anticipated the storm and sent e-mails to resident students to give them a heads-up and encourage them to stock up on supplies they might need if they were snowbound.

Then, when the storms hit, the biggest challenge revolved around keeping 5,000 resident students occupied.

Hollie Chessman, associate director for residence life, says she is proud of the way the 130 resident advisors (RAs) and 15 live-in professional staff members maintained what she calls “positive community building” throughout the stormy week.

“The RAs did a lot of impromptu programming,” Chessman says. “They put together a movie-craft-game night with very few supplies. They had the students make green-and-gold Valentines. They had the students build snowmen and play in the snow to get them outside.”

RAs also made regular rounds of the residence halls to head off any behavior that was “not positive,” Chessman says.

“Overall,” Chessman says, “the resident behavior was really good.” She likens incidents that did occur as nothing out of the ordinary for a weekend night.

“The RAs were rock stars,” Chessman says. “Some had some fun, too.”

She also commends the Housing facilities staff who worked tirelessly to shovel and salt stairways and sidewalks around the residence halls to keep them clear. “Some of them even stayed and bunked in one of the lounges,” Chessman notes.

The housekeeping staff also kept the restrooms clean and the trash collected. “You still need clean facilities, even in a snowstorm,” Chessman says.

Keeping the Fire Lanes Clear

According to Larry Spaine, director of Facilities Management, his unit’s main goals in the height of the snowstorms were to keep fire lanes open for emergency vehicles and to clear “pathways to food” for the residential students.

He estimates that about 100 to 150 people worked “10-, 12-, 14- and 16-hour days” over the 10-day snow period to keep these areas clear. “They did yeoman’s work. A lot of them stayed here and didn’t go home,” he says, “They checked into hotels.”

Spaine says the Facilities staff members also worked with University Police and helped them out as necessary.

When the frantic snow clearing slowed down somewhat on Friday, the crews turned their attention to clearing parking lots and other pathways across campus.

“We’re still moving snow,” Spaine says. “The problem is there’s no place to put it.” He explains that some snow was hauled over to the west campus parking lot off Braddock Road, and some was pushed behind Lot K and the Facilities area.

He is hoping for a thaw — but not too quickly. “We don’t want flooding,” he says.

Grants Work Goes On

Heather Aleknavage, office manager for the Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP), submitted the following to the Gazette.

“There are the obvious Mason employees who worked tirelessly to move mountains of snow and feed hungry students. There are also the little-known unsung heroes of the university, however, who worked straight through snow days to ensure research funding opportunities were not missed.

“The Office of Sponsored Programs drum often doesn’t beat in time with the academic calendar, and so it was with this record-breaking storm. Five dedicated grants administrators with proposal deadlines looming and anxious faculty members counting on them got the job done.

“Approximately seven proposals equaling about $1,000,000 were on the line, with impacts reaching across departments — fellowship placements, undergraduate experiences and the ultimate goal of discovering something monumental. Had it not been for these committed individuals, VPN [virtual private network] technology, and some creative driving, proposals would not have been submitted and the prospects of new awards would have been lost.”

Jody Keenan, director of the Virginia Small Business Development Center Network in the School of Public Policy’s Mason Enterprise Center, was one of the beneficiaries of OSP’s hard work.

She wrote to the Gazette: “Anjali Satija, senior grants manager, and Carol-Ann Courtney, assistant director pre-award, in the Office of Sponsored Programs worked remotely on Feb. 9 and 10 in order to complete a grants submission due on Feb. 11.

“I had two proposals that I needed to submit, and we had not been notified of an extension by the sponsor. Home computer connectivity can be tricky, but Anjali kept at it until the proposals were submitted by 6:45 p.m. on Feb. 10 — a full day ahead of the deadline. Kudos to OSP!”

Classes Continue to “Meet”

Thanks to technology, many classes were able to carry on in whole or in part, even though they weren’t able to meet face-to-face.

Dann Sklarew, associate professor in Environmental Science and Policy, writes about how his classes managed:

“During Mason’s multiday Snowmaggeddon closure, all three of my graduate courses continued to meet. About 70 percent of my students participated in real-time via a series of free and optional webinars. One guest speaker cancelled, but the learning continued.

“In addition, I held my office hours via e-mail and Skype using text chats, audio and screen shares. In fact, my students instigated audio chats from as far away as Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. In short, for me it was a busy week of teaching and advising — just like any other this semester (but with a bit shorter commute and fewer greenhouse gas emissions).”

Payroll Dedication

Mason employees who got their Feb. 16 paychecks on time can thank Sue Tinsman, director of payroll and HRIS, and her staff. According to Linda Harber, associate vice president for Human Resources and Payroll, Tinsman and other staff members braved the storm to supervise the payroll operation and ensure that all went smoothly.

Do you know of other examples of how Mason employees kept the university functioning during the snowstorms? Send your suggestions to gazette@gmu.edu.

Write to gazette at gazette@gmu.edu