Politicians know that few things outside of tax season focus voters on the efficiency of local government like a big snow storm. And so, elected leaders spared little expense in mobilizing road crews last week.
Trucks fanned out across Maryland when the first flakes started falling, an armada of plows and bulldozers working around the clock for almost a week. Drivers dozed fitfully in their trucks before heading out again. In Anne Arundel County, which rented 12 front-end loaders from Buffalo, crews dumped about 6,500 tons of salt.
Within days, state crews cleared enough snow -- 2 billion cubic feet -- to fill a caravan of trucks that would extend, end-to-end, from Washington to Boston.
But even with efforts sometimes bordering on the herculean, area governments still ended up begging their residents for patience -- and help. The magnitude of the storm simply overwhelmed many jurisdictions. And in the days after snow stopped, the next torrent began: one of angry e-mails and phone calls from citizens who had yet to see a plow.
The experience left some taxpayers wondering if their local governments could do anything right. And it left beleaguered officials feeling that citizens wanted the impossible.
"There is no way you can clear 18 inches of snow on 1,700 miles of roadway in 48 hours and make it look like a road on a July day," said Chauncey Bowers, spokesman for the Prince George's County Department of Public Works, which received 2,000 calls from unhappy residents.
"The average citizen is expecting clear blacktop while our goal is to restore the road to passable condition."
Montgomery County asked residents to remind officials about the streets it missed. And they told complaining citizens that it normally takes almost three days to clear the county of a 24-inch snowstorm, even with a fleet of 320 plows. Montgomery and other jurisdictions asked residents for help in digging out schools and other public buildings.
"This is Maryland. We don't have the kind of resources they have in Minnesota," said Donna Bigler, a Montgomery County spokeswoman.
In Anne Arundel County, officials called a news conference to explain what a hard time they were having with all the snow, especially in all those tight cul-de-sacs. And like other local governments it pledged to get to them all -- in time.
Howard kept play-by-play updates of its plowing progress on its Web site. A color-coded map showed which streets had been plowed and salted. And little symbols indicated where the trucks were. The county set a record for visits to its Web site. It got a fair number of calls, too, and county officials pleaded for forbearance.
"But for some people, that ran out pretty early," county Public Works Director James M. Irvin said. "They wanted to get out Monday or Tuesday."
The snow also buried budgets from Charles County to Howard in a year when officials had been desperately looking for ways to cut spending, not increase it. The state alone will end up spending about $30 million on the storm, far surpassing the $21 million it had budgeted for snow removal for the entire year, and forcing Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to ask the federal government for disaster relief.
Anne Arundel estimated it spent $1.5 million last week clearing the snow. In Prince George's, the figure could climb to $3 million, said County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D).
Last weekend's storm alone will cost Charles County at least $500,000, officials said. The county is already about $1 million over its storm budget. In Calvert, the storm cost $200,000, eating up almost the entire snow removal budget for the year.
The snow was the last thing Howard County Executive James N. Robey (D) needed. At his state of the county speech last month, he brought a snow shovel and joked that because the county was already $250,000 over its snow removal budget, residents may have to do some shoveling themselves.
Last week's storm put the county $1.3 million in the red. And county officials are not laughing anymore.
"The clock is still running on costs," said Raymond S. Wacks, the county's budget director. "Rains over the weekend could force us to call people in to deal with floods. And then there's the rest of the winter. We're hoping the weather stays warm and we don't get another storm."
Staff writers Ovetta Wiggins, Matthew Mosk, Michael Amon, Anita Huslin and Nelson Hernandez contributed to this report.