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Got a coat? We look back at memorable storms in UVA history

Taken by Storms written on a pad of paper, lit by candlelight as if the power is out
Jeff Saxman

Sometimes a respite from the stress of classwork and exams comes in the form of heavy rains, deep snow and a few downed power lines. Here are some of the bigger weather events that have hit the UVA community in recent decades and alumni memories of them.

Snowstorm: March 1962

Central Virginia shut down in early March 1962 amid a massive snowstorm that snarled traffic, triggered roof collapses, and knocked down phone and power lines. In Charlottesville, snow fell at a rate of 1.3 inches an hour, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. All told, nearly 24 inches of snow dropped on the town.

Students flocked to the Lawn for snowball fights, Peter Southmayd (Col ’62) remembers. And, for a week, it was a mess on Grounds. “There were a lot of wet clothes and a lot of wet feet—a lot of people didn’t have winter boots and galoshes,” says Southmayd, who grew up in Ohio and was used to snow. “The facility people were working like mad to get the sidewalks cleared.”

But before all that activity—before the shovels and snowballs—what Southmayd remembers first is the peacefulness of that early morning after the snow began to fall. He woke up to a “deathly quiet” morning in his Chancellor Street fraternity house and couldn’t believe what he saw when he looked out the window.

“I put on some rubber shoes that I had and tromped over to the Rotunda,” he says. “It was early—about 6:30 in the morning; it was just barely light. And I thought, ‘This is really cool-looking.’ I stood in front of the Rotunda, and there wasn’t a footprint in the snow except mine.”

“It was a beautiful eerie scene, looking down the Lawn,” he says.

Snowstorm: January 1987

Some 13 inches of snow fell on Charlottesville in January 1987, postponing sorority rush and scuttling plans for two separate speeches from former President Jimmy Carter and then-presidential hopeful Gary Hart.

The Lawn in snow
Several snows in January 1987 disrupted Grounds. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library/UVA

Afternoon classes were canceled after the first snowfall, on Jan. 22. After the second on Jan. 25, Catherine O’Neil, wife of UVA’s then-President Robert O’Neil, told the Cavalier Daily that 200 to 250 students and faculty members called Carr’s Hill late into the night to find out if classes would be canceled again. They were.

At the time, Regina Esslinger Hall (Arch ’88) was living in what is now called Brown College. Her favorite memory is trekking over to the Lawn at night. “It was truly magical,” she says. “I had never seen the Lawn covered in snow, and the stars were shining up in the sky and the Academical Village was just beautiful. And, of course, there were students everywhere—throwing snowballs and running around and doing the same thing we were doing, which was just having the best time.”

Hall remembers taking food trays from Newcomb Hall and sledding down a nearby hill behind the libraries. They got in trouble for it. After the second snow, somebody was stationed at the dining hall door so students couldn’t walk off with trays. “But it was worth it,” she says.

Hurricane Fran: September 1996

Ahead of Hurricane Fran, Dino Marshalonis (Col ’00) remembers a lot of discussion about its potential danger, and for good reason. The powerful storm rocked the East Coast in early September 1996, causing massive damage and 26 deaths as high winds, rain and flooding took a devastating toll.

On Grounds, the impact was more muted, but it was enough for UVA to cancel classes for a day. In Charlottesville, about 7 inches of rain fell between Sept. 5 and Sept. 7, wind gusts measured up to 44 miles per hour, power outages lasted several days, and some streets were blocked and flooded. Mad Bowl turned into Mud Bowl, and students took full advantage. Corks & Curls shows dozens sliding around in the mud.

Once the storm passed through Charlottesville, Marshalonis remembers a general relief that it wasn’t so bad on Grounds. A first-year living in Balz, Marshalonis explored Grounds soon after the winds died down and remembers an eerie quiet.

“There was an electrical energy to everything,” he remembers. “It was very still. Nobody was outside. There was a lot of debris everywhere—a lot of leaf litter and small branches. … It just looked like a total mess, but nothing that couldn’t be spruced up after some pretty significant landscaping.”

This spread in the 1997 Corks & Curls shows the fun spirit of Mud Bowl. Elsewhere in Charlottesville, streets flooded and outages lasted days.

For several hot and muggy days, some students had to deal with power outages and other annoyances. Brian Ulmer (Engr ’99) and Leah Friedman (Col ’99) were among six people sharing a house off Grounds where the basement flooded with a couple of inches of water. Ulmer remembers the power being out for at least five days. “I feel like we handled it with a mildly adventurous spirit,” Ulmer says.

An avid hiker, Ulmer got out his camp stove and started cooking—whipping up the usual college staples of ramen and macaroni and cheese. Says Friedman: “He probably kept us all alive.”

Mount Chipotle: Winter 2009-10

David Seekell (Grad ’14), left, and other members of the Mount Chipotle National Research Observatory team pose on the dirty mound of snow, which stood nearly 40 feet at the time, according to the Daily Progress. The Daily Progress

First of all, there was absolutely nothing scientific about Mount Chipotle and its eponymous national research observatory, headquartered in the parking lot of Barracks Road Shopping Center during the historically snowy winter of the 2009-10 academic year. It was all a ploy to raise a little money for the academic (but mostly social) pursuits of graduate students in UVA’s close-knit Environmental Sciences Department.

But, somehow, a pile of dirty snow pushed up into a giant mound that measured maybe 30 or 50 feet high (again, there was absolutely nothing scientific about any of this) galvanized a community—or at least enough people to raise some beer money for the department’s graduate student association, which included several dozen students.

“I don’t know that it was widely known we were raising money to buy beer for ourselves, but that was how it got going,” David Seekell (Grad ’14) admits today. “It got a little bit out of hand.”

Mount Chipotle was possible thanks to a record-setting 55 inches of snow that dropped onto Charlottesville over the course of several storms, including one in December 2009 at the start of winter break that left 20.5 inches and another in February 2010, which shut down classes as 15 inches fell.

As crews plowed the shopping center parking lot, Mount Chipotle, named after the popular fast-casual restaurant nearby, only grew. Seekell, who lived close to Barracks, started to take notice. Other classmates were watching the snow pile up too as they explored the shopping plaza and horsed around in the snow, Luke Cole (Grad ’11) says.

As they looked for ways to raise money for their gatherings, they ultimately launched a betting pool. In an early February 2010 email, the graduate student group sought bets on when Mount Chipotle would completely melt, sharing a link to a blog that had been started to chronicle “preliminary research and scaling attempts.” A bet on a single date cost either $10, a 12-pack of beer or a bottle of wine.

The fundraising effort really took off a few days later when The Daily Progress got wind of the project, publishing a tongue-in-cheek front-page article about the “daring UVA students” behind it. The story included a photo of Seekell, Cole and other students dressed in white lab coats and posing on Mount Chipotle holding random scientific equipment, a T-shirt on a stick and a rotary telephone as props.

Then other media picked up the story. “As it got a life of its own, that sort of made us more and more emboldened,” Cole says. More “scientific studies” were completed. Reports of “seismic” activity drew concern. Somebody shared a report of their “climb” up the “unconquered northeast face” and their spotting of a yeti. Aerial photos were taken. Landscape architecture students offered their mapping services.

Left: Carrie Holman (Col ’12, Educ ’12) (front) and Bethany Jaeckle (Engr ’12) have a snowball fight on the Lawn in February 2010.

Right: A record 55 inches of snow fell over the course of several storms.

The Daily Progress; Andrew Shurtleff

It all ended on April 27, 2010, when Mount Chipotle disappeared into the asphalt, and the winner was the department’s new chairwoman, Pat Wiberg, a hydrology professor. The effort raised about $600 in cash and contributions, Seekell says.

But Mount Chipotle lives on—even more than a decade later. A painting of the summit by Richard Crozier, a local artist who retired from teaching drawing and painting courses at UVA a decade ago, was unveiled the following academic year and still hangs inside a meeting room in Clark Hall.

Earthquake: August 2011

Where were you when Grounds shook?

On the first day of classes in August 2011, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake centered about 30 miles east of UVA briefly rattled Charlottesville. It was likely the most widely felt earthquake in North America’s history and caused as much as $300 million in property damage, including to the Washington Monument, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Charles Eckman (Engr ’14), then a second-year student, was outside Brown College. He first noticed a loud sound like a train and started wondering where the closest tracks were and why he’d never heard a train at that location on Grounds before. “Then I actually felt the ground shaking,” Eckman says. “It was scary there for a second.”

The entire event took just moments and left no damage at the University, but UVA students managed to get a few more days of traction out of the experience. Sid Das (Col ’13) remembers earthquake-themed parties that weekend and texts about toppled lawn chairs or food that had fallen to the ground during the jolt. But “everything went back to normal so fast,” Das remembers, “it was like it never even happened.”

Hurricane Sandy and Winter Storm: 2012-13

At some point, the alert went out on Facebook that students were gathering at midnight on the Lawn for a snowball fight, and Sid Das (Col ’13) was there. The early March 2013 snowstorm would eventually drop nearly 17 inches of snow on Grounds, cancel classes for a day and postpone some midterms.

For a couple of hours, Das gathered with hundreds of other students on the Lawn to throw snowballs, sled and play in the snow. Somebody set up hot chocolate and snacks. There were some streakers too. “Walking to the Lawn and having a snowball fight with [hundreds] of kids was one of the coolest things I’ve done in Charlottesville and will probably never do again,” Das says.

That March 2013 snowstorm wasn’t the first weather disruption for the 2012-13 academic year. Hurricane Sandy shuttered classrooms for two days in October 2012. As a resident adviser in Hereford College, Nick Williams (Col ’14, Educ ’15) was on high alert, sharing information about how to stay safe and helping residents stock up on supplies. Charlottesville saw mostly heavy rains during the storm. It was close to exam time, so students were studying or playing video games in the lounge. “Things got back to normal pretty quickly,” he says.

Classes were canceled for two days in October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy caused massive flooding. Here, a car sits in waters on Old Ivy Road. Andrew Shurtleff

It took longer to recover from the winter storm five months later, especially as ice began to cover the already snowy streets and sidewalks. Das remembers losing power in his townhouse and scrambling to handwrite an essay by candlelight before a deadline. To stay warm at night, friends piled up in his living room for a giant sleepover.

Williams was, again, on duty to support his residents. Power outages forced Runk and O’Hill dining halls to offer limited service, the Cavalier Daily reported. Williams remembers lines of students waiting for sandwiches outside Runk and cooking meals in his dorm’s kitchen to share with residents.

Eventually, Williams and a couple of friends struck out on their own, walking to the Corner where they tucked in for a meal at an Irish pub and relayed the news back to students who were tiring of Runk sandwiches. “It felt like, honestly, going to Antarctica because there were just mounds of snow and ice,” he says. “We had to walk really carefully because nothing was cleared.”

On their way back, they stopped by the Lawn, where the snowball fights and sledding continued. “It looked beautiful,” he says. “But you could see the overwhelming nature of the snow everywhere.”

Sarah Lindenfeld Hall is a writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina.