Cleanup slowed by snowplow failures

87 of the city's 188 plows are idled by breakdowns

Balto. County fares better

February 19, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

As Baltimore's side streets remained snowbound two days after a record-setting snowstorm, the city's efforts to clear neighborhoods have been slowed by equipment failures in almost half of its plows.

While 101 snowplows continued to clear major streets yesterday, another 87 sat idle in repair shops with transmission problems, broken salt-spreaders and other troubles, city officials said.

"The equipment failures are starting to hurt us," Mayor Martin O'Malley said. "This is a lot more snow than we're used to, and every imaginable thing is happening - engines are blowing up, plows are breaking, windshield wipers aren't working."

In Baltimore County, two of 259 pieces of equipment were out of commission yesterday. The county has added about 50 pieces of equipment from private contractors.

The mayor, who is coordinating the city's response from a command center at 620 Fallsway, said that the city's top priorities have been to clear major roads, downtown and routes into supermarkets and emergency centers.

"The side streets are untouched - and we probably won't get to them until Thursday at the earliest," O'Malley said.

Baltimore County officials finished the main roads by midday yesterday and headed into residential neighborhoods. Public Works spokesman David Fidler said a plow should hit every street in the county by early today.

"A lot is going to happen overnight," County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said. "I think we're going to be in good shape by rush hour tomorrow morning."

Even as plows have broken trying to move more than 2 feet of heavy snow, about 150 city employees have been working overtime to respond to a flood of calls for medicine, baby formula, blankets and food.

More than 1,000 people have called an emergency phone line the city set up, 410- 545-NEED.

The city has responded to these calls by sending police cars and military Humvees to deliver 50 bottles of prescription high-blood pressure and diabetes medicine (among other medications), as well as 1,500 bundles of food, 600 blankets and 200 electric heaters, said Reggie Scriber, ombudsman for the Department of Housing and Community Development.

"The phone has just been jumping off the hook. Here's another call now," said Scriber, as he picked up a call from a mother desperate for baby formula. "Ma'am, I'll give you whatever I have. But I don't have any more formula right now. We'll have more in an hour, and we'll get that out to you."

More than 1,400 people had called the city's 311 call center for nonemergency services from the beginning of the snowstorm through about noon yesterday. Almost all wanted side streets plowed, but the city won't begin sorting through these until later in the week, said Adrienne Barnes, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation.

"We are pleading with people to be patient with us, because we know we have an enormous task ahead of us," said Barnes.

George Winfield, director of the Department of Public Works, said he was not disturbed by the number of mechanical problems among snowplows, given the extraordinary amount of snow.

"This is going to happen with any storm - you are always going to have mechanical failures," he said. "When you have the vehicles operating 24 hours a day, there is a lot of stress on their transmissions, in particular."

City officials asked the public yesterday to pick up shovels and help dig out fire hydrants and clear storm drains to prevent flooding as the snowdrifts melt. Trash collection has been suspended until further notice in the city, and most city employees are being asked to stay at home, unless they are involved in emergency services.

Baltimore County will collect trash today, but public works officials asked those whose trash is normally picked up in alleys to place their refuse at the curb.

City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who represents the 2nd District in East Baltimore, said that residents are not grumbling.

"People are patient, and they are out there with shovels, working together," he said. "They understand that this was worse than even the blizzard of 1996."

Smith said it's not out of the question for the county to assist the city's snowplowing efforts once it finishes clearing the county's roads.

"The big issue now is removing the snow, getting it out of the way," Smith said. "Once we finish that, yeah, maybe we can give them some help."

Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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