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Mother Nature, massive snowfall pounds local streets and budgets

Posted: March 1, 2012 - 10:01pm

Snow ain’t free. It costs a lot of money to remove and pile up the vast amounts of snow that Mother Nature has blessed (some would say cursed) much of Alaska with this winter.

The state’s and several cities’ snow removal budgets are busted, tallying well above the usual costs set aside to keep up with nature’s weather-related smack downs.

The National Weather Service reports higher than normal snowfall for many areas throughout the state.

Some storms have made national news, like when the snow reached the rooftops in Cordova.

What doesn’t make the headlines is just how individual cities are having to find the money to pay for work to deal with those unexpected snow levels.

Anchorage has received more than 108 inches of snow through Feb. 24, close to the 132-inch record set in the 1950s and well above the 74-inch seasonal average. And more snow was in the forecast in the early days of March.

The municipality says that if all the removed snow were piled into a five-acre lot, it would reach 250 feet – about the height of a 28-story office building. The J&L Towers building in midtown Anchorage is 14 stories high.

That’s a lot to clean up, and that doesn’t count what plow crews have moved off the roads, creating those head-high snowberms off to the sides.

With labor, overtime, contractual services, fuel and everything else, Anchorage is looking at clean-up costs of $8.1 million between October and Feb. 12. Last year’s costs were only $4.9 million and that covered October through April.

The municipality’s six dump sites are filling up, although officials say there is still plenty of room.

“They are at a capacity greater than I’ve seen in over 20 years of working here,” said Dan Southard, public works superintendent.

The city is currently exploring an unusual tactic by examining an ordinance to expedite the permitting process for private dump sites.

Cheryl Frasca, director of office of management and budget, said there is sufficient money in the budget for the extra, unforeseen costs. Adjustments will have to be made to next winter’s amounts during the annual budget amendment process in April. Frasca said the issues will be addressed to try to avoid shortfalls in next winter’s funding. This can be addressed through a number of measures in April, such as the mill rates for property taxes.

And while Anchorage has seen twice as much snow than normal, some places have been even hit harder. In a much-publicized event, Cordova was hit with 278 inches – 23 feet – as of Jan. 31. Cordova normally sees 56 inches in a given winter.

City Manager Mark Lynch said all the costs associated with this winter’s pummeling aren’t yet compiled, and could take a month or so. He does know the costs were well above the budget. The city has easily spent at least $500,000 so far this year; the normal snow removal budget is only $25,000.

“Beyond that, we really don’t know totals,” he said.

The state is currently assessing the damage and costs in Cordova. Lynch said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was supposed to come in late February to make an assessment and the U.S. Small Business Administration may be able to offer some business assistance.

Nearby Valdez has been hit with 377 inches rather than the normal of 241 inches. Almost half of that came down in December alone. Valdez street foreman Terry Larson said the city went $720,000 over budget on removal this season.

Although the city was prepared, the snow dumps are filling up. Larson said some residents have been panicking though, and hiring contractors that use the city dumps, a tactic that is legal.

Juneau has experienced almost twice as much snow as normal at this point, according to the National Weather Service. A Juneau official could not be reached but radio station KINY reported the city has spent at least $50,000 in snow removal overtime and material costs, stretching the budget already. City Manager Rod Swope told KINY the city will need to request a supplemental appropriation if the funds cannot be found in the existing budget.

Ice more than snow bollixed things up in Nome. The city made national news with its winter drama involving an unprecedented mission to get vital fuel into the iced-off city after severe winter storms prevented the usual barge delivery.

Vitus Marine LLC chartered the Russian tanker Renda to deliver the 1.3 million gallons of fuel with the charter costs running between $10,000 and $15,000 each day from mid-December through early February. Typical fuel costs for the ships were also up to $10,000 each day.

Vitus Marine CEO Mark Smith said that other variable costs for compliance, port calls, insurance and oil spill response regulations, response and prevention measures have direct costs to the mission that don’t get reflected in that daily rate.

“This was definitely the way to deliver fuel. There’s no question it was way less expensive than flying it in,” he said.

The cost of the Healy, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker that cleared the way for the Renda, was not available, but a Coast Guard spokesman said the costs were already accounted for in its regular operating budget.

Nome officials said the snow removal budget likely will surpass $90,000 this year, about $9,000 above the budgeted amount. And that’s assuming there’s not another big storm.

The story in Fairbanks is different than most, however. The Interior city has seen only 38 inches of snow, compared to the typical 54 inches. But that doesn’t mean its work crews have been spared any headaches. The city’s was hit with an especially strong, and long cold front — notable even for Fairbanks.

The cold actually kept snow removal equipment locked up for long stretches, thus slowing down the snow removal schedule. Mike Schmetzer, Fairbanks public works director and city engineer, said the equipment isn’t used in very cold temperatures, minus 30 degrees or colder, and that put the city about five weeks behind in removal.

Fairbanks is used to little snow falling at once, a few inches at a time. Recently, the city got hit with about 9 inches of snow in one swoop. Fairbanks general foreman Brad Carlson said the vehicles are still finishing up with what’s left on the ground, and more is snow likely in early spring.

Schmetzer said the lack of total snowfall sort of balances out the costs of not removing it as quickly, and so costs are right on track where they should be for a typical winter.

Even with winter’s worst behind us, maintenance is still going on. Dump sites have had to get creative in making room, even running heavy machinery across the tops to compress things down a bit.

“We’re still hauling day and night,” Anchorage’s Southard said.

Come springtime, all those piles will turn into something else, something many are not looking forward to. Southard said this will all be a lot of water to deal with before long. 

Jonathan Grass can be reached at jonathan.grass@alaskajournal.com.

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bearhunter6
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bearhunter6 03/02/12 - 08:51 pm
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snowfall

uhhhh, it's a Kenai paper, right???? SOOOooooo, how much has Kenai gotten???? Soldotna??? How about the injured trooper?? ANY FOLLOWUP ON THAT????

lois2link
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lois2link 03/19/12 - 01:25 pm
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Past record, current season total?

I was just signing in to ask the same thing, bearhunter6! What has been the past annual record, what is the Kenai/Soldotna total so far this year?

I've googled and searched the internet and can't find any data. Don't tell me there isn't any, that's ridiculous.

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