Hard-hitting ‘Texas-low’ snows in York’s campuses

Ontario’s favourite groundhog, Wiarton Willie, did not see his shadow yesterday when roused from his den, which is good news according to the furry weather prognosticator and means an early spring. The other good news is that Groundhog Day was also a “snow” day for students, faculty and many staff at York University.

York was among 14 Southern Ontario postsecondary institutions to cancel classes and close operations yesterday in the wake of a massive Texas low that packed thunder, lightning, high winds and blizzard warnings. The storm dumped between 15 and 25 centimetres of snow on the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

Above: Click on the photograph to view a Flickr slideshow of images from ‘Snowhog’ Day 2011

The decision to close York University was not taken lightly, said Steve Dranitsaris, senior executive officer in the Office of the Vice-President Finance & Administration. “We saw live feeds from cities such as St. Louis and Chicago showing the destructive force of this storm,” he said.

“The process to make the decision to close the University began late Monday when we knew the storm was coming,” he said, explaining that it took a pan-University team to make the final call to close. The group, drawn from both campuses and a number of departments and units, began monitoring the conditions when it became clear the storm would hit the GTA.

“The administration, Grounds & Maintenance, Security Services and Transportation Services started monitoring the weather radar, the US National Weather Service and Environment Canada. We followed the storm’s track on maps and tracked the meteorological updates," he said. "Late yesterday, when it became apparent to us that this was going to be a big storm, the team asked University Registrar Joanne Duklas and Associate Registrar Lucy Bellissimo for the number of classes, faculty, staff and students who would be affected if the University had to cancel classes on Tuesday evening and Wednesday. Professor Susan Dimock, chair of Senate, was made aware of the situation.”

At 4:45am on Wednesday morning, the director of Security Services made a recommendation to the senior management team to close the University.

“The big concern was not the amount of snow, but how fast it was falling and the condition of the roads outside the University,” said Dranitsaris. “Grounds staff can handle heavy snow and many had been working throughout the night to keep the University’s roads clear. However, Steeles Avenue was a mess; the Ministry of Transportation’s traffic cameras showed that most of the major highways were still snow covered with traffic moving at a crawl; and Environment Canada’s 5am updated forecast was that an additional 10 to 15 centimetres of snow was still to come – so the decision was made in conjunction with the chair of Senate to close York’s campuses.”

The University’s unsung heroes, said Dranitsaris, are Grounds Director Bob Smith and his staff, many of whom worked all night to keep campus roads and walkways clear.

“Grounds began clearing snow as of 2am, with 34 staff and three supervisors running 16 vehicles and pushing a whole lot of shovels to clear the15 to 20 centimetres of snow from roads, sidewalks, stairs, doorways, small parking lots and other areas,” said Meagan Heath, waste management supervisor, Campus Services & Business Operations. From 2am onwards, Heath said, a contractor with eight heavy equipment vehicles cleared the large parking lots.

"Our staff will return at 10pm tonight, after a bit of rest, to continue the clean-up,” she added yesterday afternoon.

Right: Pictured from left are operators Raul Dionisio and Anton Perera with the oldest and newest trucks in York’s snow clearing fleet

Dranitsaris said that over the course of his long career with York University, he has lost count of the number of times York has closed because of a weather emergency. Just three years ago, York cancelled operations and classes twice because of snow, affecting exams and a March recruitment gala.

York students, faculty and staff enjoyed the unexpected day off and they posted their experiences on Facebook and Twitter. “It’s a rare occasion, but I’m getting some sleep mid-week,” posted student John Jacques on the York’s RED Zone Facebook page. “Excellent.”

Andrew Eckford, a professor of computer science in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, posted this tweet: “Spending the #snowday with my 2-yr-old. We made some tasty blueberry muffins. Thanks, weather! #yorku"

As for Wiarton Willie’s prediction of an early spring? Well it was backed up by Shubenacadie Sam in Nova Scotia and Puxatawney Phil in Philadelphia and that’s more good news.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor