Another weekend storm strikes

Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010


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Staff photo by EMILY BARNES
Waldorf resident Mark Hutson shovels snow from in front of his house Sunday with a little help from his dogs, Ginger and Woody.


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Staff photo by EMILY BARNES
Colin Gilday, 3, of Waldorf gets ready to throw a snowball following the storm that hit the region Saturday.


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Staff photo by EMILY BARNES
Emma Nuquay, 2, left, and her brother, Jimmie, 8, play in the snow in their Waldorf yard.

The unexpected storm that dumped up to 9 inches of snow in the eastern section of the county this weekend did more damage to local snow removal budgets that are already operating in the red.

On Friday evening the National Weather Service was predicting between 4 and 6 inches of snow for Charles County with slightly more predicted in St. Mary's and Calvert counties, but the totals began to climb as soon as the flakes began to fall around 7 a.m. Saturday. The dry snow steadily fell until evening and when the storm finally moved out of the area Dentsville and Bryantown reported 9 inches of accumulation. St. Charles reported 8.5 inches, Bryans Road 7.5 inches and Hughesville 4 inches of snow.

St. Mary's received up to 15 inches of snow and Calvert reported up to 9 inches, according to the NWS.

Charles County folks stayed off the roads for the most part during the storm with only minor accidents and vehicles sliding off the slick roads being reported by the Charles County Sheriff's Office.

The most notable incident occurred around 11:15 a.m. when a car skidded off an icy Woodville Road off Gallant Green Road in Waldorf and into a pond, said Scot Hutchinson, assistant chief of the Hughesville Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad. The car was partially submerged and the man was standing in frigid water up to his knees, he said, adding he was treated at the scene and released.

The county's department of public facilities was ready for the storm, said Amy Calvin, public information officer. The county dispatched 140 pieces of contract equipment and 55 road crew members to spread 2,900 tons of salt and plow roads, she said. All roads were passable by the time the staff left early Sunday afternoon, she said.

County staff returned to work at 5 a.m. Monday to treat icy roads and assist the county's public school system to open schools, Calvin said.

In addition, the Maryland State Highway Administration pretreated state roads such as U.S. 301, Route 5, Mattawoman-Beantown Road and Route 488 late Thursday evening into Friday morning in preparation for the storm, said Charles County commissioners' President F. Wayne Cooper (D).

Charles County public schools canceled all weekend activities in anticipation of the storm. Due to freezing temperatures overnight Sunday and icy conditions on back roads, the school system delayed school openings two hours Monday and one hour Tuesday.

The delays allowed the county to treat roads before bus traffic began, according to Charles County public school spokeswoman Katie O'Malley-Simpson.

The school system has four snow days built into the school calendar, O'Malley-Simpson said, adding that only one day has been used so far this year.

"So far, we've been pretty fortunate," she said of the snowstorms occurring on weekends and during already scheduled school breaks.

The blizzard that dumped 18 to 22 inches of snow in Charles County on Dec. 18 and 19 did not cause schools to close because the system was already on winter break.

O'Malley-Simpson said school officials will keep a close eye on the weather forecast this week because of a winter storm that might hit the area this week.

The NWS placed the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, including Charles County, under a winter weather advisory Tuesday morning with 3 to 5 inches of snow predicted to fall in Southern Maryland between Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning. Meteorologists are also saying that a weekend storm that is expected to come from the south could produce "significant" accumulation in the metro area.

Cleaning up from this winter's storms is slamming the county's snow removal budget, which was already depleted following the blizzard in December, Cooper said, adding that the county spent an estimated $1.2 million to clean up after that storm.

Saturday's storm is costing the county an estimated $480,000, Cooper said, adding it costs about $60,000 an inch to spread salt and remove snow from roads.

The county had set aside only $350,000 for snow removal this fiscal year because during the last several years very little snow has fallen in the county, Cooper said, adding that the county commissioners are going to slightly increase the fiscal 2011 snow removal allocation but a firm number has not been calculated yet.

"Who knows what next year will bring?" he said. "We'll do an average on the snowfall amount for the last four or five years and come up with a number for fiscal 2011."

The commissioners have already had to dip into the county's estimated $20 million fund balance for Saturday's storm, Cooper said, adding that the county will continue to use reserve funds to remove snow from the roads and spread salt as new storms blow into the area.

"The county's ready; we won't jeopardize public safety if it snows," he said. "We'll be prepared."

La Plata is also feeling the pinch from the snowstorms. The town allocated $10,000 for snow removal in this fiscal year's budget. About half of the allocation — $4,675 — was depleted because of the cleanup from the December snow storm, said Robert Oliphant, town treasurer. The town also spent $15,300 in overtime costs and $28,800 for the equipment that was used to spread salt and plow snow, he said.

Both the town and county declared a snow emergency following the blizzard that cleared the way for them to submit a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement to help offset the cost of the massive snow removal effort.

The commissioners are asking FEMA for $1.2 million, Cooper said, adding that the county's first request was denied and it has been resubmitted.

La Plata is seeking $48,775 in reimbursement, Oliphant said. The town included its request with the county's bid for reimbursement.

La Plata will also continue to clear roads despite the budget shortfall, Oliphant said, adding that a 90 percent reduction in the town's share of the state highway user funds really caused a dent in the town's budget. In fiscal 2009, La Plata received $431,148, compared to the $39,756 in funding the town received this fiscal year. Some of that funding is reserved for snow removal and the purchase of salt, he said.

Cooper said the county's highway user revenue was slashed almost 95 percent. In fiscal 2008, the county received $9.1 million, compared to $413,000 this fiscal year, he said. The county uses the majority of the funding for road maintenance but some of the money is set aside for snow removal and the purchase of salt. A portion of the money is also used to fix potholes and cracks in the roadways that are caused by icy conditions, Cooper said.

"That [repairing potholes] is going to cost the county major money," he said. "The reduction in state highway user money has hit us all hard. It's very serious. The county had a huge cut; it was shocking but we're dealing with it."

La Plata will not have an estimate on the cost of Saturday's storm until later this week, Oliphant said, adding the town is ready for any more storms that blow into the area.

"We've got plenty of salt and all of the equipment is fine," he said. "We'll do what needs to be done to get the streets cleared."

Staff writers Gretchen Phillips and Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report.

To learn more

The Charles County government has a reference guide on the county's snow removal policy and other tips available at www.charlescounty.org.

During snowstorms residents can obtain information or report problems by calling 888-460-SNOW.

La Plata's snow removal policy is available at www.townoflaplata.org and clicking on the "announcements" link.

Indian Head residents can call the town hall at 301-743-5511 or the Charles County Sheriff's Office District 2 station at 301-743-2222 after hours.