Plows prepped for precipitation

Isabel sapped budgets, but governments ready for first wintry storm

December 05, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

As the Baltimore area braced for its first wintry storm of the season, local officials said yesterday that they are ready to keep the roads clear, despite the toll Tropical Storm Isabel took on their snow removal budgets and on the trucks they use as snowplows.

Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, which suffered heavy damage in the storm, used almost all the money they had budgeted for snow removal on the storm cleanup. Though Howard and Carroll counties weren't hit as hard, they had to dig into snow accounts.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said yesterday that the county's costs for cleaning up after Isabel are still being tallied. But he estimated that the county spent between $5 million and $6 million, including nearly all of the $2 million it budgeted for snow removal.

The executive said the county is applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and hopes to be able to replenish the budget before the snow season ends. If not, he said, he will seek whatever budget transfers are needed.

"This is a basic service," he said of snow removal. "It's a public safety issue, it's an economic issue and it's an educational issue because we need to get kids back to school."

Snow began falling in the city by 10 last night, and the National Weather Service predicted a possible accumulation of 3 to 5 inches by this morning. Snow was predicted to continue through the morning, then turn into drizzle in the afternoon, and into snow again tonight.

Snow was expected to continue falling throughout the day and evening tomorrow.

Baltimore County highways chief Tim Burgess said 5 percent of the county's snow equipment is out of service, a vast improvement over the 25 percent that was sidelined after Isabel. He said two dump trucks were ruined during rescue operations in Bowleys Quarters when they were caught in floodwaters. In all, the county moved 10,000 truckloads of debris from the east side after the storm.

Last year at this time, all of the county's trucks were ready to go. This year, Isabel set the maintenance schedule back, forcing the county to pay overtime to make preparations for winter.

"We've been a little pressed for time, but we're ready," Burgess said. "A lot of that 5 percent is just minor stuff that can be put on the road if we need it, even this weekend."

In Anne Arundel County, which also was hit hard by Isabel, county spokesman Matt Diehl said all snow equipment is ready. But the county will have to use a contingency fund to pay for snow removal because it used the $350,000 it had budgeted for snow removal this year after the storm.

"We blew right past that," Diehl said.

Howard County has spent half its $400,000 overtime budget, which is part of the $750,000 storm emergency fund for this fiscal year. Carroll County spent a quarter of its $780,000 emergency road operations budget - which pays for mostly weather-related cleanups - to prepare for and clean up after Isabel.

Harford County didn't touch its $375,000 snow removal fund, and Baltimore's Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kathy Chopper said the city's $1.5 million budgeted for snow removal was intact - little affected by Isabel.

She said drivers from her department, Public Works, and Recreation and Parks were called out last night and standing by for road duty.

Baltimore County had 40,000 tons of salt stocked in sheds in various locations, along with about 300 pieces of snow removal equipment and 450 workers. Burgess said it typically takes between four and six hours to apply a layer of salt to all of the county's roads and another 12 to 18 hours to clear them.

In Carroll County, 50 plows and 131 crew members are expected to be out on the roads as soon as snow hits the streets, said Benton Watson, chief of the county's bureau of roads operations.

"Our goal is to be out there as soon as the snow falls and start immediately and not wait until there is a build-up," he said. "We try to avoid icy conditions."

Howard has 94 trucks for snow removal, some of which were lent to Baltimore County during Isabel. None were damaged.

County Public Works Director James Irvin said they were all loaded with salt yesterday, and if county police found the roads getting slippery during the night, all 150 employees would be called in.

For the second consecutive year, Smith made his snow readiness presentation at the Towson salt barn on Bosley Avenue on the day before a winter storm was expected to hit. Last year's early-December storm dumped about 7 inches on the Baltimore region and kicked off one of the snowiest winters on record.

In spite of the weather report, Smith insisted this winter will not be a repeat performance.

"I'm shocked at all these overcoats," said Smith as he strode past a gaggle of heavily bundled reporters to a podium outside the shed. "But in the event that I'm wrong, we're ready."

Sun staff writers Lane Harvey Brown, Larry Carson, Hanah Cho and Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

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