Winter Storm Jonas, which covered Washington, D.C. with over 2 feet of snow this weekend, has tied for the storm with the fourth most snowfall on record in the District, aggravating an existing homelessness problem and essentially halting all activities across D.C.
The storm, dubbed “Snowzilla,” shut down federal, state and local governments as well as the D.C. Metro and public schools and universities.
The total snowfall ranged from 10 inches to 35 inches in and around the city. The White House lawn measured 22 inches of snow as of 6 a.m. Sunday.
Mayor Muriel Bowser highlighted the potential dangers of the storm in a press conference last Friday.
“It has life-and-death implications and all the residents of the District of Columbia should treat it that way,” Bowser said.
At least one death, that of an 82-year-old man who died from a heart attack after shoveling snow, has been reported in the District. Eight more were reported dead from blizzard-related incidents in Maryland and Virginia.
National Weather Service meteorologist Isha Renta said members of the homeless population had been calling to check on conditions.
“I know that we get calls at least several times a day,” Renta said. “[The callers] get briefed by us on snowfall amount, wind-chill and all that and then they make their decisions based on what we tell them.”
Gunther Stern, executive director of the Georgetown Ministry Center, a homeless shelter in Georgetown, said although his center was unable to open, he personally checked on the conditions of homeless people he knew in the area. Stern said Emergency Medical Services had to be called in one case.
“I checked with a couple people under the bridges and they’ve generally been okay,” Stern said. “I missed one person and some folks found him and called EMS and apparently he was in bad shape.”
Stern emphasized that although GMC was unable to open, it worked to direct people to other shelters and spaces where they would be safe.
“There are places available where people can stay in 24 hours through the storm and we really wanted them to go there,” Stern said.
The D.C. Department of Human Services opened recreational centers to be used as warming shelters and overflow hypothermia shelters during the storm. Six of the eight wards in D.C. had a recreational center open for the duration of the storm.
In Ward 2, the Kennedy Recreation Center opened its doors to more than 130 people in need of shelter Saturday night. Department of Human Services Program Analyst Aida Fikre worked at the shelter over the weekend, passing out food and registering people arriving there.
“What the city does is basically try to make sure that everyone is off the streets in extremely cold weather,” Fikre said. “Most people will know to come in themselves but for the ones that don’t know and aren’t sure what to do, there are also vans that drive around and look for people that are vulnerable and on the streets. Then we try to bring them into a warm place where they can have a bed and so on.”
Fikre attributed the shelter’s ability to work efficiently to the collaboration between various District departments and organizations.
“It is really a collaborative effort between a whole bunch of organizations just to make sure that everybody is safe and warm,” Fikre said. “Although it is run by the Department of Human Services, there are other organizations in the city that actually help out. Here we had people from Catholic charities that literally worked 24 hours a day.”
Renta said that the criticism D.C. received in reference to the city’s preparedness for snow, or lack thereof, is due in part to the District’s unique international makeup.
“I’ve heard comments of people from the North saying that they get a lot of feet of snow and they still go to school and all that but we also have a very international city and we have people from lots of different places and they might not have good experience driving, but that’s my personal view,” Renta said.
Fikre agreed that the shelters and the DHR, at least in terms of dealing with the homeless population, were overall adequately prepared to handle the storm.
“In terms of actually helping the homeless families and stuff like that, this is not something that is new,” Fikre said. “If tomorrow there is a surprise storm that comes, I guarantee you they will have everything ready already. We always have backup staff that is ready to come in at any given time and moment.”
The Georgetown administrators in charge of planning for the storm were also confident in their preparation. Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson said that early in the week, key administrators, students and staff began meeting to discuss options regarding the storm.
Olson said one of the more difficult aspects of the storm was figuring out how to keep certain facilities, including Leo O’Donovan Hall, Yates Field House and residential hall offices, running.
“There’s always a complicated question because, being a residential campus, even when we’re closed, we’re never really closed,” Olson said. “It’s always disappointing to folks when they’ve worked hard and planned for a program or event and then it can’t happen. But I think we also tried very thoughtfully to keep the events that we thought were still workable in this environment.”
Olson emphasized his appreciation toward all those who worked to keep the campus running over the course of the storm.
“I just want to express my gratitude. I think that there are a lot of university staff and administrators who have worked hard to manage this and I also want to note the role of student employees and student volunteers,” Olson said. “They all play a role in contributing to keeping the campus safe and working.”
Vice President for Planning and Facilities Management Robin Morey agreed that students played a big role in keeping the campus running. He emphasized the importance of the students who expressed their gratitude to workers as a key factor in motivating the workers.
“The students were amazing during the event,” Morey wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The vast majority of students thanked our workforce as they were working and many handed out cookies and hot chocolate. That support motivated our team.”
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