D.C. area officials step up plans to battle winter storms

December 14, 2011

After the region was jolted by back-to-back blizzards last year and then paralyzed by a snowstorm early this year, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and other leaders are stepping up plans to battle storms and help residents avoid gridlock on area roads.

Gray (D), who is entering his second winter as mayor, held a news conference Wednesday to show off shiny new snowplows and unveil plans for 33,000 city employees to either telecommute or shelter in their offices in response to some snowstorms.

Gray’s plan, which includes earlier notification of school closures, comes after regional leaders and the federal government spent 10 months reevaluating how best to prepare for winter storms.

In a storm that some policymakers described as a national security threat, the Washington area was slammed by six to 10 inches of wet snow during the evening rush Jan. 26.

Although the federal government had dismissed workers early, many remained in their offices until they saw the first flakes. With snow falling at up to an inch an hour, roads quickly froze over. Unable to navigate a maze of stuck buses and cars, some motorists spent the night in their cars.

“It quickly became clear that our plans were inadequate when faced with these types of rapidly developing storms and weather patterns,” Gray said. “Agencies citywide and throughout the region have worked together to identify last season’s failings.”

Gray said the city’s plan is similar to one announced recently by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management for federal workers. He said the District will set a timetable for the departures of city employees when weather conditions are expected to deteriorate during the day. If employees remain at their desks despite the warnings, Gray said, they will be urged to shelter in place until the weather improves.

Gray’s new policy is part of a regionwide effort to better manage the response and better communicate with the public in bad weather.

On Thursday, officials from 21 jurisdictions will meet with Craig Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to discuss how to improve the response to winter storms.

The leaders will present a Web site, www.capitalregionupdates.
gov
, designed to provide a one-stop source of traffic and emergency information for the District and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

The Web site will include news releases from individual jurisdictions so residents won’t have to check several sites before deciding whether to travel.

Merni Fitzgerald, director of communications for Fairfax County, said regional leaders also agreed to better coordinate their statements in severe weather.

In winter storms, Fitzgerald said, the overarching message will be for motorists to “be off the roads” before the snow begins. To help maintain coordination in a variety of winter weather events, each jurisdiction has been given 45 scripted messages.

“This is local officials on the ground, public safety officials, telling people what to do,” said Fitzgerald, who is also director of external affairs for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which is sponsoring Thursday’s meeting.

Once the snow falls, at least in the District, Gray said road crews should be prepared to remove it from city streets. The District has spent $4.5 million this year on 45 new plow trucks, and the city is prepared to dispatch more than 250 pieces of equipment during major snowstorms this winter.

But the District discovered after the twin snowstorms in February 2010 that at times it might need even more equipment. More than three feet of snow fell on the city in less than a week, and then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s administration struggled to line up enough equipment to open up streets and haul mounds of snow out of downtown.

This year, the Gray administration has lined up contractors with a total of 150 pieces of equipment that can be dispatched to assist the city’s snow-removal efforts.

“This is one thing we have in our back pocket,” said William O. Howland Jr., director of the D.C. Department of Public Works. “We were doing it on the fly before.”

If there is a risk of roads and sidewalks becoming too hazardous for schoolchildren, Gray said, District officials will try to decide by 11 p.m. whether to open school the next day.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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