Northern cities complain about lack of federal snow removal aid Buffalo official says 37-inch accumulation in day makes emergency

September 29, 1996|By Knight-ridder news service

WASHINGTON - In the Blizzard of '96, Philadelphia got 31 inches of snow and millions of dollars in federal aid. Ditto New York City, with barely 20 inches. In Washington, a measly 17 inches was recognized as a disaster.

Meanwhile, the massive storm that swept across the eastern United States last January buried Buffalo, N.Y., under more than a yard of snow. Parts of Michigan's Upper Peninsula got nearly 10 feet.

Did they get a fat wad of cash and the sympathy of the nation?

No. They did not.

Eight months later, with the winter of '97 looming, some denizens of the snow-besotted North still feel the hot sting of injustice.

"Two inches cripples New York City or Washington, D.C., and all of a sudden, it's an emergency!" Buffalo streets commissioner Vincent LoVallo griped Friday. "Well, 2 inches doesn't cripple me. One foot doesn't cripple me. But 37 inches in 24 hours - now that does cripple me.

"It just galls me that we don't receive aid because we're supposed to be used to this kind of weather," LoVallo fumed. "Well, where's the threshold where we're not used to it? Eight feet? Ten feet?"

During recent congressional hearings on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Dennis Kwaitkowski, FEMA's deputy associate director for response and recovery, vowed that the agency would produce new snow rules by Oct. 1.

Current rules allow FEMA to pay for a variety of services in the event of a snow disaster. FEMA expects to propose new rules that would require it to pay for snow removal along major arteries and for search and rescue operations along all roads and highways once an emergency is declared, Kwaitkowski said.

But the new rules would still require snowbound localities to receive an official declaration of emergency or disaster before they could receive federal aid. And to get a declaration, local officials must convince their state governors and federal officials that a catastrophic event exceeds their resources and threatens the safety and security of their residents.

In January, that was easy enough for New York, Philadelphia and Washington, which were paralyzed by the blizzard. But it created an almost insurmountable hurdle for places such as Marquette, Mich., where the annual snowfall tops 170 inches and storm-tested road crews rarely let a blizzard close crucial roads for long.

"What we were looking at in northern Michigan is different from the sort of mega-event that hit the district and Philadelphia last January," said Bob Meissner, a Michigan congressional aide. It was not just a snow emergency, he said.

"We had a slow emergency. Road crews were working 70-hour weeks, and nobody was getting time off and every street had to be plowed. And just when you had one storm taken care of, the next one came through," Meissner said.

"You didn't have a single crisis event. You had an accumulating crisis."

Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, estimates that the crisis cost city and county officials in the UP more than $10 million last winter. And that's just for snow removal, he said.

"On top of that, you had equipment breaking down. The home builders have all complained because they got a late start on the season. And tourism has been absolutely miserable," he said.

"Look, the Marquette upper harbor was still solid ice in June. We had eight consecutive months of winter!" Stupak said. "I mean, yeah, it's a way of life in the UP. But when you get 320 inches of snow in one year, it really drains your budget."

An emergency was declared in Michigan at least once - in 1994 when a bitter freeze burst water mains throughout the Upper Peninsula. FEMA paid for repairs worth $14 million.

But the federal government can't afford to pick up every flake that falls. Last winter, Michigan Gov. John Engler refused to request federal emergency assistance for the Upper Peninsula, and he also refused to offer help from state funds.

Engler spokesman John Trus-cott said the governor sympathizes with towns and counties that were forced to overspend their budgets because of unusually heavy snow.

But, unlike 1994 when burst water mains threatened public drinking water, the heavy snow in northern Michigan last winter simply "does not constitute a state of emergency," Truscott said.

"There has to be potential loss of life. It has to impact public health. A state of emergency is a very, very serious thing," Truscott said. "Heavy snow is an inconvenience. ... And we don't have any funds available for inconveniences."

It's just that sort of attitude that really frosts LoVallo. The Blizzard of '96 cost Buffalo $1.6 million, he said.

"Hurricanes and earthquakes, they all get helped. But we don't get any because we're supposed to be able to handle it," LoVallo said. "I should have let the city become crippled. Make sure firemen couldn't get out of their firehouses. Close the place down and make sure a few people died. Then I could get the aid.

"But I think that's a sad way of doing business," he said.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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