Earning high marks for coping with ice COPING WITH JANUARY'S ICY RAGE

February 05, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Liz Atwood, Carol Bowers, Ed Brandt, Larry Carson, James Coram, Patrick Gilbert, Joan Jacobson, Consella Lee, Mary Maushard, Angela Winter Ney, Joe Nawrozki, Dennis O'Brien, Karin Remesch, John Rivera, Glenn Small and Gregory P. Kane contributed to this article.

Like the wristwatches in those old commercials, Marylanders took a licking during January's miserable cold and ice. But we kept on ticking.

We overspent our highway budgets by millions of bucks for salt and overtime.

Lots of postal workers decided not to risk their necks to deliver our bills and junk mail; the power companies ran out of juice; and some morning kindergarten kids barely went to school at all in January.

But as Carroll County resident David Duree put it, "I feel it's really positive overall how we've gotten through this esteemed cold snap. We stepped up to the plate and did a good job."

A broad survey by Sun staffers of public officials, public servants and plain folks has found that we are giving ourselves and each other mostly A's and B's for our response to one of the coldest, iciest Januaries in recent memory.

"In fact, everyone deserves a 'Triple A' rating," said William T. Baker Jr., Harford County's public works director.

He called the members of his road crews "dedicated people who worked around the clock in the most adverse conditions."

How bad was it?

January averaged 27.1 degrees at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, almost 8 degrees below normal but far from the coldest on record.

That occurred in 1977, when the average was 22.9.

Less snow than normal fell last month, just 4.9 inches. It even warmed to 55 degrees the 24th.

But something wet and icy fell on 14 days, four more than normal. It totaled almost 4.6 inches, 1.5 inches more than normal. It kept freezing in place.

Frozen pipes burst, which led to floods, which led to insurance claims -- $14 million worth so far, according to the state's largest insurers.

But as the ice thickened, and the wind blew, and the temperatures sank below zero, we never stopped completely, not even the lawbreakers among us. Legitimate businesses closed, but for drug dealers, prostitutes and their customers, "It was business as usual," said Carol Hartke, president of the Patterson Place Community Association.

Her neighbor watched one customer as he tried to pick up a prostitute, "slipping and sliding in a nice new Mercedes."

"The police said the weather was too bad to come out," she said.

When garbage trucks couldn't get through ice-clogged alleys for a week, the rats had a banquet. "We were feeding them really well," Ms. Hartke said.

Postal workers may have taken the most heat during the big freeze. Jan. 18, carriers in Baltimore City and Baltimore County delivered only half the mail, exercising their option to place safety above the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Among those who tried, 38 were injured in falls and four crashed their postal vehicles.

"I had to miss about 20 deliveries, the roads were just too icy," said postal carrier Debbie Blevins, who works in the rural Darlington area of Harford County.

"I knew it was time to give up and turn around when my Jeep started sliding sideways on the ice even after I bought a set of chains," she said. Even so, she managed to reach most of the 580 mail boxes on her route.

Post office spokeswoman Deborah Yackley said one city carrier, Simon Rollins, was glad to get a thermal mug of hot tea from a customer in Southwest Baltimore. "He drank it all day long and it kept him warm."

During the worst of the ice and snow, The Sun's 400 independent contract carriers delivered 92 percent of their newspapers on time, 15 percent to 20 percent of them on foot. All but a few hundred papers eventually got to subscribers, said circulation chief John Patinella.

"We had distributors who lost two or three vehicles to body damage," Mr. Patinella said. "There were a lot of bumps and bruises, and bad spills."

In Maryland, weather forecasters, too, operate on slippery ground in winter. "We are just far enough south here that we are very often . . . close to the rain/snow/ice/freezing rain line," said Russell Martin, a meteorologist at the National Climate Analysis Center in Camp Springs.

"It requires close to perfect forecasts or somebody in the forecast area is going to get something you didn't forecast," he said.

Today, for example, the weather service predicts rain beginning as a mixture of snow and sleet. Temperatures will reach a high in the upper 30s in Baltimore. Lows will be in the mid-20s to low 30s. Skies are supposed to clear tomorrow and Monday, with highs in the 40s, but cloud up again with rain Tuesday and Wednesday.

During January, there were some bad calls, but on the whole, "I think we did pretty well," said Fred Davis, chief National Weather Service meteorologist at BWI.

Marylanders are paranoid about snow, Mr. Davis said. They pester forecasters to predict accumulations days before such things can be known. "The only people who benefit from that is the grocery stores," he said.

Last month, the big problem was not snow, but ice that wouldn't go away.

"Ice is something no one likes to drive in, or deal with, even in the Midwest," Mr. Martin said.

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