Neena Satija is an investigative reporter and radio producer for The Texas Tribune and Reveal, a public radio program from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
It's been 2 weeks since the blizzard, and many city streets are still covered in snow. Another storm is on the way -- do residents just have to deal?
More than a week after a historic blizzard pounded Connecticut, life in New Haven has largely become a cat-and-mouse game with huge mounds of snow. (We got 34 inches). Driving, parking, and walking are all about avoiding big, white, icy heaps or giant slush puddles.
And all of us, frankly, are sick of it.
Adding insult to injury, a week after we were told to move our cars from on-street residential parking spaces or risk being towed, my street – like many other side-streets across the city – has not seen a plow. This, after I’d gone into full-on panic mode, paying a guy with a snow plow thirty bucks to dig out my car. And there was such a huge mound of snow between my roommate’s car and the road, that we actually drove it onto the sidewalk to get it off the street. We’re not alone.
Chris Betances, a college senior who lives on the other side of town, spent considerable time and effort digging out his car…and his street never got plowed. He nearly got towed earlier, forced to park in an illegal spot.
"Good thing I was actually walking out to my car," he says. "There was a tow truck literally right next to my car … I was like, there’s no way you’re towing my car right now. Where else am I going to park, you know?"
Mayor John DeStefano’s words didn’t offer much consolation. "At some point, we do stop plowing, and we do stop removing snow," he says. "It's not perfect. In some places it's not great, or desirable, but it's manageable ... and we learn to manage it."
The storm has already cost New Haven north of $2 million. Schools are back open, and it’s safe for buses to drive. Snow clearance with payloaders and dump trucks was costing $250,000 a day. Emergency money from the federal government helped, but FEMA will only reimburse costs incurred by the city up to 48 hours after the storm hit. It's been almost two weeks.
In other words: Deal with it.
As is so often the case, the issue has become political. DeStefano made a bombshell announcement earlier this year that he wouldn’t’ seek another term (he’s been mayor for 20 years), and the plethora of mayoral candidates are already weighing in on storm response. In nearby Bridgeport – Connecticut’s biggest city by population – some residents say they didn’t see a single plow for days. Now, plows have created 20-foot-high mountains of snow that block drivers' views at intersections. A Facebook page calling for the city’s mayor Bill Finch to resign, created this week, has more than 130 "likes."
Officials acknowledge that communication could have been better. Bridgeport waited till the absolute last minute to make a "snow emergency" declaration and to institute a parking ban; maybe next time, those announcements need to be made earlier.
Perhaps more importantly, communication between the city and weather forecasters is paramount. Originally, Bridgeport only expected 18 inches of snow. In reality, between 31 and 38 inches fell.
"[For] anywhere from 2 inches to 20 inches of snow, the city’s plans were workable," says the city’s Emergency Management Director Scott Appleby. Workers got a rude surprise around 10:30 pm on Friday as the storm hit, when, as Appleby put it, "the system stalled." Second-shift plow drivers couldn’t even get to their jobs.
From Chicago to Syracuse, debates have raged over how prepared a government should be for snow. How many plows should the city own? What streets should they hit first? And if climate change brings the promise of more severe blizzards, should cities buy more equipment, so they don’t have to pay contractors extraordinary fees in the case of emergencies? (That’s by far the biggest cost to New Haven, DeStefano says, where, "to be honest with you, we did not have discussions about pricing [with contractors]. At that point … it’s a seller’s market.")
In Bridgeport and New Haven, it’s not clear there are any answers. First of all, snow plows were apparently somewhat useless during this storm. Not only do they not fit through many of these cities’ narrow streets, built decades ago for pedestrians who used mass transit; there was also simply too much to plow. Equipment like payloaders would be a huge investment to buy in case of another historic blizzard.
DeStefano made a couple of other important points. First, more equipment means more supervisors – which the city doesn’t have. "The worst insult to injury, despite the one you may have experienced of moving your car and not getting the street plowed, is frankly to have equipment standing idly by," he says.
Second: Even if the city could pay for more contractors or bring in more National Guard members, outsiders can only help so much. "If they don’t know where Goffe street is, and they don’t have a sense of Goffe street, that’s a problem," DeStefano says.
Overall, city officials had little to say about how specifically they can be more prepared for the next storm. (Which, by the way, could be as early as this weekend. Bridgeport is certainly making a newfound effort - I’ve already gotten a press release from officials there titled “City Monitoring Potential Storm,” with a quote from Finch: “Our plows are ready to hit the streets.” No other Connecticut cities or towns have sent out releases, as far as I know.)
"I think there are things you can learn, but the things you learn may have nothing to do with the storm you next experience," DeStefano says. Mostly, he thinks we residents need to lower our expectations.
Top image: This island of snow makes driving tricky on a Bridgeport side street. (Photo by Dru Nadler/Connecticut Mirror)