On Jan. 26, 2011, less than 10 inches of snow brought the Washington, D.C., area to a near standstill.
Thanks to a lack of coordination between government and private businesses, employees stayed at work until the storm hit. Traffic lights lost power and rain washed the salt from treated roads, which left drivers to navigate icy ones. Cars stalled and were abandoned on major roadways, causing the normal rush-hour crush to last eight to 10 hours.
By March, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a regional organization of governments in the D.C. area, had appointed a task force charged with making recommendations that would prevent the situation from recurring, said Montgomery County Councilman Phil Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, who chaired the task force.
The National Weather Service is predicting an average winter, but the region is prepared, said Chris Voss, director of the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management, which prepares emergency operations plans for the county, leads training exercises, takes the lead during emergencies and writes reports after the event.
Andrews said that since 2011, the region has improved communication between governments so that local decision makers understand the extent of a weather emergency. He said communication with the public also has improved, thanks to websites such as www.capitalregionupdates.gov, which provides updates on emergency alerts, weather, traffic and utilities, and www.trafficview.org, which provides a real-time map of traffic in the metro area.
“The public did a really good job during Hurricane Sandy, basically sheltering in place, staying where they were, not hogging the roads,” he said. “The decisions by the federal government and school systems to cancel helped hugely to keep the roads clear.”
Businesses can help keep commuters off the roads too. When snow or storms make roads dangerous, some businesses and agencies encourage their employees to work from home.
Jennifer Huergo, a spokeswoman for the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, said some employees have the option to work certain hours from home.
“Just like the federal government, we do encourage telework where possible,” she said.
Huergo said NIST “wants to be flexible,” especially if there are situations where road conditions are bad.
Storm cleanup in cold, hard cash
One blizzard can cost the county $10 million to $15 million for snow removal, Andrews said, but the price tag depends on the kind of snow. Light and fluffy is better than the wet, heavy snow that is best for making snowballs, Voss said.
The county budgets for snow removal, but not the kind of money — $60 million — it spent in 2010, a year that saw successive February snowfalls which came to be known as Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon. Though the county received some money from FEMA for Snowpocalypse, the agency only reimburses for two days of snow removal, Voss said. When expenses exceed a departmental budget, the County Council can provide a supplemental appropriation after the weather emergency.
Keith Compton, chief of the Division of Highway Services for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, said the June derecho cost the department around $10 million, although he expects the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse the county for about 75 percent of its costs for cleanup. Montgomery’s request for aid is still going through a review process, Compton said, which will probably finish sometime this winter. Voss expects the county to receive a little more than $6 million for expenses related to the derecho.
Sandy did not qualify for federal reimbursement, however, and cleanup from that mostly fell to the DOT.
“That impacted the budget for storm cleanup to the tune of somewhere around $3 million,” Compton said.
During heavy snowfalls, the DOT plows more than 5,000 lane miles of roads, but some local municipalities take care of snow and ice cleanup on their roadways.
Rockville budgets for snow and ice removal using a five-year average, but can draw from the city manager’s contingency fund if costs one year exceed the average. Craig Simoneau, Rockville’s director of public works, said Hurricane Sandy had an inconsequential effect on the budget, and the city received federal funds for cleanup from the June derecho.
Weather events of the past year have not stressed budgets for Kensington, the town of Chevy Chase or the Bethesda Urban Partnership, according to interviews. BUP is a nonprofit that markets downtown, and provides street sweeping and trash pick-up. They also are responsible for clearing snow on handicap curb cuts and crosswalks, but residents must clear sidewalks.
BUP’s budget for snow removal supplies like ice melt is $2,500, said Stephanie Coppula, a spokeswoman for BUP, but the organization uses a general overtime budget to pay employees who are called in to work additional hours to clean up after snow events. BUP is funded by a special tax on properties within the urban district, fees from the parking lot district, and charges to some real estate developers, according to their website.
“We should be fine for next year as well but won’t know that for certain until the county executive and county council approve our budget in the spring,” she said.
Despite Hurricane Sandy, Kensington has not yet had to dip into the overtime funds it budgeted for public works employees this year, said Kensington Town Manager Sanford Daily. The town of Chevy Chase was reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 75 percent of its hurricane costs, said Chevy Chase Town Manager Todd Hoffman.
“We have some contingency funding in place for events such as that, but given the FEMA reimbursement, we weren’t too strained,” Hoffman said.
Daryl Braithwaite, public works director for Takoma Park, said the summer storms did not generate significant costs for her municipality. There has been “not much of an impact so far” on the Right of Way Division budget, which includes weather-related costs, for fiscal year 2013, although storms during the summer required a few people to work overtime.
“We budget for some overtime in general related to storms,” Braithwaite said.
She said that Takoma Park budgets each year for three major snow events, or occurrences of four to six inches of snow.
Michael Acierno, president of the town of Brookville Commission, said the town’s maintenance budgets have risen some over the past two years, but cuts imposed by the state make it difficult to cover both snow removal and road repair.
“We hope for mild winters with little, if any, snowfall,” Acierno said. “A winter with a lot of snow will require us to endure deteriorating road conditions the remainder of the year.”
The past year’s nasty weather cut into Poolesville’s fiscal 2013 weather budget “a little bit,” Town Manager Wade Yost said. Overall, however, the town is in great shape and not too worried about 2013.
Luther Reynolds, the commander of the Fifth District of the Montgomery County Police Department, said one issue this year was the unpredictability of some of the storms that hit the county. Many storms are predictable, he said, and emergency response units can predict which roads and creeks will overflow, or where the county might suffer power outages.
“With the derecho storm no one predicted that level of severity in that amount of time,” he said.
Winter’s forecast: ‘Who knows?’
Forecasters can often see winter storms coming a few days in advance, although several public works officials said it’s too early to say how severe this winter will be overall.
“I do think the region is well prepared for snow storms,” Andrews said. “Our major challenge is no-notice events like the earthquake.”
To receive emergency alerts from Montgomery County, which are provided by OEM, he recommends that people sign up at alert.montgomerycountymd.gov.
Montgomery County Public Schools shut down all schools for two days due to Hurricane Sandy, so there are only two emergency weather days left in the school year, said Dana Tofig, schools spokesman.
If schools must be shut down more than those four days, he said, additional days will need to be added onto the school calendar unless the State Board of Education approves an exception.
Montgomery County staff start prepping for the next winter at the end of the last, Compton said. The Department of Transportation has stocked up on salt and sand, with plow routes completed and a GPS system up and running.
“We have a very sophisticated program that’s the result of years of development, and we are absolutely ready for the winter,” he said.
Last year, the county only saw a total of about 14 to 16 inches of snow. Several years ago, it saw 8 feet.
“I have a great respect for Mother Nature,” Compton said. “We always plan for the worst, of course, and hope for the best.”
Simoneau said last winter was the only winter in his seven years working for Rockville that the city did not have to plow any snow. Two years before that, the city saw record-setting snowfalls during “Snowmageddon.”
“Those are probably bookends of the extremes, and you’ve had it within two years of each other,” Simoneau said. “Sandwiched in between there was a winter that was probably somewhere in the normal range.”
In short, the Department of Public Works can’t predict snow in the area until it shows up in the forecast.
“Who the heck knows what to expect?” Simoneau said.
Staff Writers St. John Barned-Smith, Jen Bondeson, Sylvia Carignan and Terri Hogan contributed to this report.