Region braces for more snow, short on salt and patience

Loading salt at the Chester County PennDot silo in Malvern. Twelve municipalities in the county face a critical salt shortage, a road-safety risk, officials say.
Loading salt at the Chester County PennDot silo in Malvern. Twelve municipalities in the county face a critical salt shortage, a road-safety risk, officials say. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 13, 2014

In Delaware County, some townships are waiting for road-salt deliveries that were supposed to arrive weeks ago.

Officials in Northampton, Bucks County, paid a trucking company to bring in salt from a neighboring town rather than risk a late delivery.

And in Chester County, where 12 municipalities face a critical salt shortage, the deputy director for emergency management, Robert Kagel, said the state Department of Transportation told him to "be creative."

After back-to-back snowfalls and a catastrophic ice storm that froze roads, downed power lines, and paralyzed the region last week, officials and residents are facing new challenges as they brace for another fierce storm that is expected to start just before midnight Wednesday.

The National Weather Service posted a winter storm warning Tuesday for the entire region, saying six to 10 inches was all but a certainty by Thursday, with some parts of Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties picking up more than 10.

One bright spot, in a winter that continues to solidify its place in the record books, is that computer models have backed off the freezing-rain threat. The snow was forecast to mix with sleet and rain, and perhaps change to rain for a time, from I-95 south and east, and then change back to all snow later in the day. But prolonged freezing rain was not expected, the weather service said.

Still, the potential of heavy, wet snow generated by a coastal storm drawing moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean could bring down more tree limbs and power lines, the weather service said in its afternoon briefing.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency urged residents to stockpile food, stay off the roads, and prepare for possible power outages.

Areas that often lose power during storms could get knocked out again by wind or snow, officials said. As of 6 p.m. Tuesday, fewer than 600 Peco customers were still without power from damage after last week's storm.

Peco officials have said they hoped to restore all customers before Wednesday's storm began.

Along with salt, patience is in short supply. Robert Pellegrino of Northampton, one of the hardest-hit towns in Bucks County last week, said storm fatigue was setting in among public works employees.

"When you work 24 to 36 hours straight," he said, "and you're getting intermittent sleep and getting abused by residents who don't like the fact that you plowed their driveway in. . . ."

Kagel fears that the salt shortage means some roads will not be pretreated before the snow starts to fall. Others will be sprinkled with less than the normal amount, and a few might not be treated at all.

"Some roads may be more treacherous than others," he said. "And that's why we're certainly encouraging folks to not travel if they don't have to."

Montgomery County has 600 tons of salt on hand, more than enough to cover the roads through this storm. But given the rising prices and shrinking supply, spokesman Frank Custer said, the county does not want to have to order any more.

"We don't have enough to share with the communities, and we're not in a position to pick winners and losers in that situation," he said. "We're doing everything we can to help them apply to the state, but if the state doesn't have it, I guess they have to find other means."

Rich Kirkpatrick, a spokesman for PennDot, said the agency had enough salt to keep its 40,000 miles of roads treated. Crews are getting ready to treat roads and are setting up a command center.

"We're preparing for everything the storm can throw at us," he said.

Communities that need help getting salt can make requests through the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, but he said there was no guarantee that the state would be able to help: "It's a matter of matching up requests with what the resources are."

International Salt, a Bucks County company and one of the country's leading salt suppliers, has found it impossible to stay on top of its orders, said company representative Mary Kay Warner.

"It's pretty much unprecedented," she said, "as far as the demand for salt goes."

Rather than filling all back orders, the company is providing salt to as many customers as possible to keep the maximum number of roads safe, Warner said.

The salt is imported from Chile and takes about three weeks to make the trip to U.S. ports. Warner said that several shipments were set to arrive this week and that all salt would go straight to customers as soon as it arrived. The company is also extending hours for workers who unload the shipments.

School officials fear that more snow days will create scheduling headaches. Robert Partridge, a spokesman for the West Chester Area School District, said officials added seven makeup days to the schedule and have one more in reserve, April 21, before having to tack on days in June.

If there are any more snow days after this week - which Partridge said seemed likely - students may end up going to school during the last week of June, when summer camps typically start.

At the Chester County emergency operations center, where staff members have been working nonstop for more than a week, Kagel hoped to close down by 5 p.m. Tuesday to give his employees a few hours of rest. They'll need it, he said: The center will reopen Wednesday evening.

"There's a lot of stuff that's just piling up on everybody's desks," Kagel said. "And family - I mean, I hate to admit this . . . I forgot about my mom, who was without power."

His mother was fine, he added.

Elsewhere in Chester County, Oxford Borough officials were finishing up repairs on several snow plows damaged in the Feb. 3 snowstorm.

"We're making sure all the equipment is in tip-top shape and ready to go," said John Schaible, supervisor of the Public Works Department. "The only worry I have is, there's so much other snow piled on the roads, we don't really have anywhere to push the new snow. But we'll get through. We always do."

So far this winter, Philadelphia officially has recorded 43.3 inches of snow. Only four winters in the 130-year period of record have produced 50 or more inches.


SNOW SNAPSHOT

With 43.3 inches of snow recorded, this winter's total is exceeded only by nine other winters. Here is where the snowfall totals were on Feb. 12 of those winters:

Season       Through Feb. 12          Total

2009-10            72.1"               78.7"

2002-03            22.2"               46.3"

1995-96            48.3"               65.3"

1977-78            38.0"               54.9"

1966-67            33.4"               44.3"

1960-61            49.0"               49.1"

1917-18            41.9"               43.9"

1904-05            37.6"               43.8"

1898-99            39.8"               55.4"

SOURCE: National Weather Service, Franklin Institute


asteele@phillynews.com

610-313-8113

@AESteele

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Anthony R. Wood, Mari A. Schaefer, Kathy Boccella, Ben Finley, Jessica Parks, and Michaelle Bond.

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