Fort Drum Dec 2022 storm wb.jpg

Blizzard conditions in late December pose a challenge for Fort Drum Public Works’ snow removal crews working in brutal cold and, at times, zero visibility to clear streets and roadways. (U.S. Army Photo) 

Blizzard of ’22 proves Fort Drum capable
of plowing through any winter weather

Mike Strasser

Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Jan. 5, 2022) – The new year is already looking much different than how the last one ended at Fort Drum.

Little evidence remains of the nearly 40 inches of snow that fell during the Blizzard of ‘22, which began Dec. 23 with wind gusts of up to 54 mph that created massive drifts across the installation.

“It was tough,” said Sean Johnson, Fort Drum Public Works’ Municipal Services Branch chief. “You had the constant winds blowing the snow so, at times, there was zero visibility. It certainly made it a challenge for the employees working.”

Johnson said that the PW Roads and Grounds crew did a phenomenal job with snow removal operations.

“They really had to be on top of their game out there, to be able to move that kind of snow and deal with those conditions,” he said. “I think it was a little better for those who were higher up in the road plows, but for anyone lower to the ground it was difficult to see where you were going.”

As if the holidays aren’t stressful enough, Johnson said employees had to juggle work and family commitments while battling the storm.

“A lot of people had to reschedule their holiday dinners and celebrations to support the mission,” he said. “You have the stress of finishing a 12-hour day here, and then they go home and had to clear more snow from their driveways or deal with whatever was going on in their own personal lives. I think with the type of environment we were dealing with it would put a lot of stress on any workforce.”

Still, Johnson said that the snow-clearing crew has a lot of pride in their ability to keep the roads clear and facilities accessible during a storm. For those responsible for runway operations at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield, the mission took on greater significance to bring a plane full of Soldiers home from an overseas deployment.

“There were times when we had a really good runway, but then the crosswinds and weather conditions weren’t going to allow them to come in and land,” Johnson said. “So, we just had to be ready.”

Three days passed before the weather relented, and the PW team could ensure that the flight crew had the best surface to land on.

“After trying so hard to get these Soldiers in, seeing that plane finally come through the runway was the greatest sense of relief,” Johnson said. “As they got off the plane, you could hear them hooting and hollering – the happiest they could be, you know. It might have been a day after Christmas, but they were home.”

Johnson said personnel working on clearing the runway were just as excited for the plane’s arrival.

“Our guys were staged there, unable to do any more work while the runway was active,” he said. “They could have gotten a bite to eat or something, but they were watching that plane taxiing in. It took an enormous amount of work on their part to get to that point, and it was a proud moment. For us, the job got a whole lot easier once those Soldiers were taken care of.”

Johnson said that communication was key throughout the blizzard, and access to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) virtually on his government smartphone made it easy to stay informed.

“I think having the EOC operating the way it was made a huge difference and it allowed the command team to be very proactive,” he said. “We were able to get all the information to flow from one source and keep all the organizations on the same page, so kudos to that operation.”

Rich Hughes, Fort Drum emergency manager with the Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security, said the EOC normally operates with departmental representatives present at one location. During the November snowstorm, it was difficult for personnel to do this safely because of road conditions.

“So, we started exploring ways to do it virtually during the last storm, and then we were able to refine it,” Hughes said. “Being able to bring everyone into the situation virtually really helped us coordinate everything, keep people informed, and ensure we are operating off the commander’s priorities. Also, we knew that blizzard conditions were coming two days in advance, so that allowed us time for the garrison commander to activate the virtual EOC early.”

If there was another silver lining to the blizzard, Hughes said that a large portion of the Fort Drum community had already departed on holiday leave before the snow hit the ground.

He said that social media messaging emphasized preparedness about the impending weather event, which helped community members make informed decisions about travel and other considerations. Those platforms, as well as the Alert! notification system, kept people apprised of road conditions, closures and reporting status.

“We were also lucky there wasn’t a significant power outage related to the storm,” Hughes said. “But we still were able to get everybody together and make sure they knew what their responsibilities were if we had to activate our sheltering plan, which thankfully that didn’t come to fruition.”

Throughout the blizzard, Hughes said there was a constant effort to be prepared for any complexity the weather might bring.

“At the same time, we also made sure we were sensitive to the needs of the families who remained on post,” he said. “We were telling them to stay off the roads unless it was absolutely necessary, but we still had to have the Commissary and Post Exchange open to a certain extent in case people had needs. The last thing we wanted was for anyone to leave post for something that would be easier to get on post.”

Fort Drum may be known across the Army for cold, snowy winters, but Hughes said that comes with a reputation to be proud of.

“Snow is a fact of life here, and we make the best of it,” he said. “It may occasionally disrupt operations for a day or two, but it doesn’t shut us down. We push it out of the way, and we drive on. We’re the 10th Mountain Division, and we can win in any environment.”