The Blizzard of '96

Beseiged by wave after wave of heavy snows, crews in the eastern and southeastern U.S. still manage to keep traffic flowing

Lee Geistlinger / December 28, 2000

Call it the "snowstorm of the century." Call it-as did one Washington,
D.C. snow coordinator-a "catastrophe." Call it whatever you like,
but most state and local snow-management officials have labeled the relentless
series of storms that hit the eastern and southeastern U.S. this past January
simply "business as usual."

Fueled by a low-pressure area and a jet stream that dipped well south of
the Mason-Dixon Line, a polar front brought snow in amounts almost unprecedented
to a swath of states in the eastern third of the country. Blizzard conditions
were reported in states from Alabama and Georgia in the South up through
the Mid-Atlantic states as far north as Maine. A series of classic "Nor'easters,"
the frigid storms swept down from the Canadian plains over the Southeast
and then continued their counterclockwise spin as they moved up the East
coast. This rotation allowed the storms to pick up moisture from the Atlantic,
which led to massive snowfalls as the storms rotated in over coastal states.

However stoic a face city and state snow-removal officials put on when discussing
the Jan. 6-9 blizzard, the numbers tell a different story. Atlanta-a city
unaccustomed to more than an inch or two of snow-received a foot, and the
cold weather allowed the precipitation to linger. Virginia reeled under
the largest total recorded-40 in.-not a state record but its worst snow
in almost 30 years.

Records were broken just north of the Old Dominion State: Washington, D.C.,
24 in.; Newark, N.J., 27.4 in.; and Philadelphia, 30.7 in. The snow struck
the nation's capital just after a deal had been cut between Democrats and
Republicans that ended the partial shutdown of the federal government. Federal
workers, due to report back to work on Monday, Jan. 8, found themselves
once again at home, the snow extending the month-long budget-impasse layoff.

At least 95 deaths were attributed to the blizzard and the floods it engendered,
and airports and commodity-exchange marts up and down the East Coast were
shuttered by the heavy snows. Nine states-Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland,
New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia-and
the District of Columbia were declared eligible for federal assistance to
help clean up the snow. Following the last wave of heavy snow-on Jan. 11-12-unseasonably
warm weather rolled into the area, accelerating snow-removal efforts but
exacerbating the chance of flooding in many regions.

Snows of this magnitude-especially in areas unaccustomed to blizzards, such
as Georgia and the Carolinas-could have completely paralyzed the entire
Eastern Seaboard. While it did take most states a few days to dig out, snow-removal
crews appeared ready for the storm and took measures to keep roads passable.
Many state and city officials either banned or discouraged the operation
of nonessential vehicles during the blizzard, but most roadways remained
open for those hardy-or foolish-enough to brave the cold and snow, including
those operating emergency vehicles. The storm tested the mettle of snow-removal
crews, and-despite the odds-they more than proved themselves.

The blizzard slammed into Georgia on Monday, Jan. 8. Larry Seabrook, state
maintenance engineer for the Georgia DOT, says his crews were ready for
the storm, but the frigid temperatures were more problematic than the foot
of snow they had to deal with. "The major factor was the temperature,"
he recalls. "I think that it was down below freezing for about 30 hours.
[The freezing temperatures] went as far south as near Fort Gains, running
on a diagonal across the state. We normally don't expect the temperatures
to go so low, and usually the temperatures-when they do go down-come right
back up again.

"We were at the point of using materials to melt the snow and ice,
and it would refreeze on us. So we would have to go over the route, and
that is very unusual for us."

When the snows first began, the DOT began spreading an abrasive mixture-salt
mixed with 1¦4-in. stone. The salt-to-stone ratio began at 1:4; this
ratio was changed to 2:1 when the snow showed no signs of abating. Crews
ran 1:1 mixtures for a good portion of the storm; when temperatures dropped
below 23 deg, calcium chloride was added to the mix.

Seabrook's figures show his crews used approximately 8,500 tons of stone,
7,000 tons of salt and nearly 1,000 84-lb bags of calcium chloride. The
high percentage of deicers-especially the more expensive calcium chloride-indicates
the severity of the storm and the duration of the cold weather. "First
thing Monday morning, the first day of the storm, we replenished our stockpiles,"
Seabrook says. "We like to treat each storm like it is the first storm
of the year-we like to keep our stockpiles well replenished."

Seabrook says he feels "very good" about the performance of his
crews during the blizzard. "It is common sense more than anything else,
as far as our operations and motorists go. If we are both operating with
common sense, we should have no problem. "For our forces," he
explains, "the commonsense approach is to have the stone and salt up-to-date
with what we need; and we need to pace ourselves well. Our material had
time to react before the plowing took place."

According to Seabrook, even though heavy snows fell in northern Georgia
and wet snows challenged crews in the southern reaches of the state, no
interstates were closed because his crews could not keep the lanes open.
"We might have had one or so closed for a time because of an accident,
but none because of conditions," he says.

Seabrook estimates a $1.5 million total cost to the state for the snowclearing,
a figure that includes labor and supplies.

As the storm swept up the Atlantic Seaboard, it gained energy and moisture
from the wet warmth of the ocean. When the storm rotated over land, the
cooler temperatures translated into snow-lots of snow. Baltimore received
almost 2 ft.; parts of Virginia, up to 40 in.

While crews in states north of Georgia were closely monitoring the storm,
they still were unprepared for this thick blanket. "We were probably
more ready than we have ever been [for the blizzard]," comments Andy
Bailey, state maintenance engineer for the Virginia DOT (VDOT). "We
were ready about 24 hours before the snow hit for what [we thought would
be] about a foot. We were ready to mobilize and bring in contractors to
help us out."

He says crews salted early on, but "the snow was coming down at a good
rate, so for most of Jan. 6 and 7 we were in push mode." One of the
problems VDOT ran into was the sheer volume of snow: The DOT's dump trucks
just weren't large enough to move the volume. Crews began using graders
and loaders, and Bailey says,"I think we had the state's entire road-building
industry out on the roads with us."

In the cities, the thick blanket of snow was a problem in another way: Crews
very quickly ran out of places to put the snow, especially on bridges and
in downtown areas. Loaders eased this crunch; snow also was dumped into

Bailey estimates that, during the course of the blizzard, the state had
2,500 pieces of equipment out on the road-at one point, the total approached
3,000 vehicles. About 30% to 40% of that total were the state's; the rest
were contractors'.

Outside of flooding in Staunton and Culpeper during the week of Jan. 15,
Bailey says the entire operation went smoothly: "We learned that we
could be ready for [a big storm]." He concedes that there were some
communications problems: The heavy volume of calls created problems, as
did the difficulty in accurately predicting when areas would be plowed.
"We had some [people] who were kind of upset that we didn't get to
them when we said we would-things like that."

"Upset" would be a kind description of the general mood of Washington,
D.C. residents during the blizzard. While the city did receive a record
amount of snow-totaling approximately 24 in. by the time the warm weather
rolled in-crews were hampered by a city that is in federal receivership
and did not have the equipment to handle the snow.

According to a Newsweek story titled Two Feet Under: Another crisis Washington
can't handle, four days after the storm, 80% of the city's 1,100 miles of
roads hadn't been plowed. A week after the blizzard, Pennsylvania Avenue
was still all but impassable.

Like VDOT, the city's Department of Public Works knew the storm was coming,
but greatly underestimated the amount of snow it would generate. Kurt Johnson,
snow coordinator for the department, says, "Well, it was a major blizzard.
I don't think anyone was really prepared for what they had to handle. We
had a lot of equipment sort of 'out of commission.' A lot is down in the
city-there is a repair backlog, and we don't have the [amount of] equipment
we had in the past. Partly due to funding problems, that and the equipment
is getting old."

Four years ago, the district owned 100 plows and had contracts with private
companies that boosted this total to 340. At the time the blizzard hit,
the district was down to 58 plows, eight of which were awaiting repair and
unusable. Perhaps realizing the precarious state of the district's finances,
only 50 contractors signed up this year to supplement this depleted fleet.

Contractors who hesitated to sign might have made the wise choice: Within
days of the blizzard, the city that is the home of our nation's Capitol
had exhausted its $2.1 million snow-removal budget and was asking for help.
(In mid-February, Ford Motor Co. extended a $750,00 credit line to the District
of Columbia so it can continue repairing emergency vehicles.)

Beyond its equipment problems, Washington, D.C.'s blizzard experience paralleled
those in most other parts of the East. "Basically, we used salt until
it got to the point where we had to put down the plows," Johnson says.
"Usually we go out and salt, and that pretty much takes care of it.
This year, we couldn't do that."

Johnson says the snow removal quickly turned into a "loader operation."
With the help of agencies from surrounding states, loaders began to help
clear the streets of the piles of snow and dump it into the Potomac River.
Johnson says it was "quite an amazing sight to see all the snow coming
out of the city" in trucks.

In addition to furloughed federal workers, one of the casualties of the
blizzard in Washington, D.C. was the 75th Annual Meeting of the Transportation
Research Board (see Editorial, February, p 7). The meeting, attended by
Roads & Bridges, was supposed to attract 7,000 attendees. However, with
airports shut down and road travel discouraged, less than 4,000 people made
it to the meeting.

Johnson did not see the early January snows as "business as usual."
"It was actually a catastrophe," he declares. "It really
was. I tell you, I hope this is the last storm like this that we see this

Unlike Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia had the resources
to deal with the waves of snow. In Philadelphia, where a record 30.7 inches
of snow fell, crews began to gear up on Jan. 5 in anticipation of the storm;
as indications of the storms severity rose, so did the manpower necessary
to combat it.

"We met with district people on Sunday when the [anticipated total
snowfall] was upped to 24 in. and upped the amount of equipment that was
readied," says Kevin Koch, chief highway engineer for the city's Streets

Like VDOT's Bailey, Koch says the storm taught the department to "improve
upon 'communications in general,' for lack of a better term. For example,
we discovered sources of help that we didn't realize were there, sources
we can call on again if we need to."

One such source was the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Re-sources,
which gave the Streets Department permission to dump snow into two Philadelphia
rivers. With the heavy volume of snow received, snow removal quickly evolved
into a lifting operation, and the rapid approval of the dumping request
expedited this phase of the job.

New York received virtually the same amount of snow as the City of Brotherly
Love, but it's a much larger city. The city's Department of Sanitation,
which is responsible for snow removal, had 1,800 pieces of equipment and
2,400 personnel on the street at any one time during the storm. Spreaders
soon gave way to a city-wide plowing effort.

As the snow began to accumulate, loaders were dispatched to whittle down
the mounds the plows were creating. New York has a well-established system
with 42 sites for snow dumping scattered around the city; snow was also
dumped into the East and Hudson rivers from Manhattan. Total cost for the
city's snow removal is estimated by a department spokes-person at $15 million.

The Massachusetts Highway Department reports it spent over triple the amount
New York City did-$47 million-to clean up after the blizzard, and the department's
authority extends to only a fraction of the roads in Boston, which was especially
hard hit (almost 20 in).

"We have over 2,900 linear miles under our jurisdiction," says
Julie Vitek, spokesperson for the highway department, "about 12,000
lane miles. Boston's roads really don't fall under the jurisdiction of the
state highway department, though we are responsible for some of the main
highways and secondary roads that go through the city."

Vitek says the storm was especially problematic in Massachusetts because
of accumulated snow. "[The early January storm] was a significant snowfall,
and it was just one of a succession of storms. Inclement weather was early
for us this year; the first big snowfall was Nov. 9. We also had 7 in. Dec.
14, 8 in. Dec. 20, 16 in. Jan. 3 and then the 18 in. on Jan. 8-that was
the big one. But we didn't have any warm weather between those dates, so
we didn't lose any of that snow."

As was the case for almost all but the most southern states, Massachusetts
fought the blizzard in push mode. The department put 3,600 pieces of equipment
on the roads during the blizzard. Only 150 of those are the state's; the
rest are from snow-removal services contracted out. "Overall, our state
workers and contractors did an outstanding job," Vitek asserts. "No
roads under our jurisdiction were closed for any length of time, although
state police may have closed portions for short periods because of blowing
and drifting."

As in many regions, warm weather in Massachusetts the week after the blizzard
led to flooding concerns. "We had to be very attentive to clearing
catch basins," Vitek explains, "We had minor flooding, but we
were able to take care of it in short order. There was the potential for
some real problems, however."

These "real problems" did surface in many parts of the country.
As the heavy snows melted and ran off into rivers, these arteries swelled
and surged over their banks in many northeast states. Rivers in Delaware,
Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and
West Virginia broached their banks, leading to problems ranging from flooded
basements to road and bridge wash-outs. Fortunately, most waters subsided
quickly, and damage was not too extensive.

With a blizzard of this magnitude, there is often a rapid depletion of salt
stockpiles. However, most DOTs report only a very minor use of salt, simply
because the snow fell so quickly and snow-removal efforts rapidly metamorphosized
into plowing operations. Down south, the relatively light snowfall and cold
temperatures did make ice a concern and more salt was used, but as the storm
swept north and picked up the Atlantic Ocean's moisture, heavy snows became
the norm.

Most DOTs-and private contractors-learned a lesson the hard way during the
winter of 1993-94, when salt use was way up and stockpiles were way down.

"We did a survey after the winter of 1993-94," says Andy Briscoe,
director of public policy for the Alexandria, Va.-based Salt Institute.
"The average stockpile was about 41%-42% of annual need at that time;
after that year, it went up to 60%-65%. Baltimore actually added four facilities,
and now they have a 100% stockpile."

Briscoe says the institute received a few calls from people needing help
locating salt following the blizzard, but most agencies were able to quickly
restock. VDOT's Bailey confirms this, saying, "We were in pretty good
shape [with salt] to begin with, and by Monday [Jan. 8] we were replenished."

Most agencies report stories similar to Bailey's. And since unseasonably
warm weather followed close on the heels of the blizzard, the use of salt
or other deicers to cut ice created by packed snow was unnecessary. Right
now, most agencies appear to be ready for the next "storm of the century."

The damage caused by the blizzard is difficult to put an accurate dollar
value on, but figures quoted by the Salt Institute put the financial loss
of a day of work lost to roadway conditions at between $4.8 billion and
$5.6 billion. With most states hit hardest by the blizzard effectively shut
down for four days, that puts the financial loss for the blizzard of 1996
at between $19.2 billion and $22.4 billion. In Pennsylvania alone, DOT officials
estimate the road and bridge damage create by the blizzard and flood to
exceed $500 million, a figure they expect to rise as waters recede and engineers
are able to take a closer look at the Keystone State's infrastructure.

If any one lesson was learned from this blizzard, it was just a reinforcement
of what Mother Nature taught most agencies during the winter of '93&shyp;'94:
Be prepared for the worst. Washington, D.C.'s Johnson sums it up best: "Always
expect the storm of the century. First the blizzard, then the Potomac River
flooded-so we're looking for locust next."

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