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Officials Scramble as Snow Cripples Much of Northeast

February 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Government officials up and down much of the East Coast on Wednesday rushed to respond to a biting snowstorm that left thousands without power and strained already tight state and local budgets. Gwen Ifill speaks with state leaders and other officials about the response to the massive storm.
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GWEN IFILL: For more now on the impact of the storm, we’re joined by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. I spoke with him a short time ago from Maryland’s Emergency Operations Center in Baltimore.

Governor O’Malley, thank you for joining us.

GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY, D-Md.: Sure. My pleasure.

GWEN IFILL: Maryland had a statewide emergency declared today. What of the status of things tonight?

GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY: Sure.

Well, the status tonight is very, very dangerous, especially on our highways. I mean, what we have seen today are whiteout conditions, blizzard conditions, which, for the first time in modern memory, affected all 24 jurisdictions in the state of Maryland.

Travel on our highways has been very treacherous. We have had a number of building collapses. And we have seen more snowfall in the last 72-hour period than we have ever seen in the 130-year recorded history of these sorts of snow and weather events in our state.

So, it’s a very challenging circumstance. We’re doing all that we can right now just to keep emergency services and putting public safety first. We have National Guard deployed supporting the paramedics and the other folks that are doing the important lifesaving work out there. And we’re urging all of our citizens to stay inside until we weather this thing.

GWEN IFILL: Governor, we have heard varying reports today of snow plows being pulled off the roads, of power being off and being on, and being not serviced or serviced. What — where do people stand tonight who are trapped in their homes, who are hoping maybe to get a little light, a little heat?

GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY: Well, all of those things are true. I mean, what we have seen is, you know, this weather event varies in some counties compared to others. In Montgomery County, we actually were making a lot of headway in bringing down those power outages. Then the second of the one-two punches from Mother Nature came through.

We now see a lot of power outages in the Northeastern part of our state, up towards the Pennsylvania line. And, so, we’re just going to continue it work on these. Of course, when the power goes out, then we have to divert resources from the roads, and pair them up with the utility crews, so that we can get at those power outages where it’s affecting the greatest numbers of people.

So, we’re urging all of our citizens to hang in there, to look out for one another, and, above all, to stay off the roads, and keep in mind that, as impatient as all of us are to get our out of our homes, our primary concern at the city level, at the county level has to be just keeping some bare amount of passability on the roads, so that our paramedic units and our National Guard can get in there when they’re called upon to transport heart attack victims or — or moms that are delivering babies or the like.

GWEN IFILL: Governor, you talk about the one-two punch from Mother Nature. You also talk about resources. How much has this one-two punch — and these are not the only storms you have — you have survived this winter so far — how much are they costing the state?

GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY: Well, that’s a very good question.

The last event we had — and, by that, I mean the one of about two or three weeks ago — was about $27 million just on the state side. We’re easily in excess of $35 million on this one and it’s still climbing. I mean, we’re going to be digging out from this, Gwen, for a very, very long time.

We’re accustomed in our Mid-Atlantic to seeing the crews from the county and the city get us down to pavement within a couple of days after a six- or seven-inch snowfall. But when you have a 46- and 47-inch snowfalls, it’s just something we’re just not used to. So, we will be a long time digging out from this.

Fortunately, with President Obama’s leadership and Secretary Napolitano, we have been on the phone and we have been coordinating with the federal government. They are going to treat the — this event as the one event, really, that we have been treating it as.

And, so, I’m hopeful that, when all of the emergency of this has passed, that we will get some financial help in order to get our — our — our state back to normal here. We’re actually in a better position to weather this than most states. I mean, every state has budget challenges with this recession, but we’re one of only seven that still has a AAA bond rating. We are fiscally responsible, so that we can manage for the unforeseen emergencies, like this huge record-breaking season of snowfall.

GWEN IFILL: So, are you hoping for a federal disaster declaration, Governor?

GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY: We’re hoping for some sort of federal disaster declaration; yes, we are.

GWEN IFILL: And what difference would that make in your ability to pull this off, then, to pull off the financing of this?

GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY: Well, I mean, it will absolutely help on the back end of this with the financing of it.

As far as — as far as our immediate response to the public safety emergency, it doesn’t really impact what we’re doing. All of the county executives and I are absolutely committed, budget challenges or not, to making sure that we put public safety first, that we fight back with everything that we have to keep the lanes open and to protect lives.

So far — knock on wood — we haven’t had a single traffic fatality in our state as a result of this. We would like to keep it that way. So, we’re going to continue to do everything that we must to protect public safety. And, in the meantime, it’s good to know that we have someone in President Obama and Secretary Napolitano that are going to make sure that this doesn’t wreck our states and our counties in the aftermath.

GWEN IFILL: Governor Martin O’Malley of the great state of Maryland, thank you so much for joining us.

GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY: Gwen, thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for more on the logistical and financial challenges facing the storm-crippled region, we turn now to Major John Winkler of the Virginia National Guard — he has been coordinating teams trying to keep ahead of blizzard conditions in Northern Virginia — and Robert Ficano, the county executive of Wayne County, Michigan, which includes Detroit.

Major Winkler, I want to start with you, because you’re fresh off the streets here. Give us a sense of what we’re doing, or how your organization is coping with all of this.

MAJ. JOHN WINKLER, Virginia National Guard: Well, we’re coping with it very well. We’re doing everything we can to support the Northern Virginia area, support — support the civilian authorities that are out there, and get people to where they need to get to, nurses, doctors, people who have injuries, anyone that needs to get to the hospitals.

And we can get into the neighborhoods and help the police and the firemen and the other civilian authorities who can do those things, get in there, and — and do those jobs for the people in Northern Virginia.

GWEN IFILL: So, you’re providing assistance and transportation support, rather than actually physically digging people out?

MAJ. JOHN WINKLER: Yes, we haven’t dug anybody out, but we have provided assistance to get people out of their homes and get them to the hospitals, so that they — you know, they can deal with whatever — whatever crisis they have in their lives.

GWEN IFILL: How many different organizations are we talking about that you have to coordinate? We’re talking city, county, state, military?

MAJ. JOHN WINKLER: Well, we’re dealing with mostly the state and the city organizations here in the Northern Virginia area, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and VDOT and those types of agencies.

And we sort of work for — with them and support them in doing their jobs. Because of the magnitude of this storm, they need a little extra help.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Ficano, Wayne County executive, this is — we get this — we don’t get these sort of snows here a lot, but you do. The worst of it has passed in Michigan, but how bad as it been?

ROBERT FICANO, county executive, Wayne County, Michigan: Well, you know, actually, we were pretty prepared for this. We got about six to 10 inches, and our crews have been preparing for this.

And, this past year, we haven’t been hit as bad. So, financially, it hasn’t run at us as bad as some other years have. We spend probably, on average, about $20,000 an hour, but we do things to reduce down the cost. So, we prepare the roads in advance. Before, we used to just spray salt and melt it as quick as we could. We now prepare the roads and we try to save time and money, because the resources have been much shorter than they were in previous years.

GWEN IFILL: On the other hand, Detroit and its area — the area around it have already started this in the hole. How big a hit do storms like this bring on your municipal budgets and your county budgets?

ROBERT FICANO: Well, we obviously prepare for it every year. And, fortunately, this year, Michigan hasn’t been hit as hard as, say, the East Coast and what we have seen in Washington and some of the other areas. So, we’re below our budget so far.

Other years past, because of the cost of salt really drove the costs up on us, we had to even go back and we had to be a smarter government, because we realized that the resources weren’t there. So, we started doing things like reducing down the number of trucks that we would have on the road. We would time it better. We would make sure that we would hit at the optimum times.

We changed it so that we could maximize, yet do it at a cheaper rate, and I think the public has been very satisfied with it.

GWEN IFILL: Your airport stayed open. Ours did not. Is there blowback from the cancellations on the East Coast for what happens in cities like Detroit?

ROBERT FICANO: Well, it’s always inconvenient. And with us being the major hub for Delta, there’s always an inconvenience. But there’s nothing that you can really do about it. I mean, a lot of people, they see in advance that this was coming. We saw it was coming in Chicago, and then — then it moves over into the Detroit area. So, a lot of people that take the airlines realized that there was this possibility, and a lot of them start to plan for it. So, we’re used to this type of harsh weather, and we prepare for it. And a lot of people that travel through the area prepare for it as well.

GWEN IFILL: Major Winkler, this has been recorded, it’s been said today, this is the snow — snowiest winter on record in this Mid-Atlantic region. Does that change the work that you do or the way you coordinate or the way you prepare?

MAJ. JOHN WINKLER: Not really. I mean, really, it just comes down to people that want to work together. And from what I have seen during the snowstorm, all of the civilian agencies have wanted to work with the military and vice versa. So, we have gotten a lot done.

And it really hasn’t changed the way we approach a mission. It’s just a can-do effort. And in the Commonwealth of Virginia, we have been fortunate enough to — to have those kind of people to work with.

GWEN IFILL: Explain to me one thing that a lot of people might not understand, which is, how does the National Guard get involved in natural disasters like this? Do you wait for a phone call, or is it something where you immediately swing into action?

MAJ. JOHN WINKLER: Well, we wait for a phone call. And that decision, I believe, is made by the governor. And it filters down to the military. And it’s not — it’s not common, so this is an unusual circumstance, I believe.

And, so, then the phone call came down to our unit in Virginia Beach, and we came all the way up to Northern Virginia, which is my home. And we have been working and living up here.

GWEN IFILL: You say we. How many people are we talking about?

MAJ. JOHN WINKLER: My organization, which is just part of the effort in Northern Virginia, is 100 men and women of the National Guard in Virginia.

GWEN IFILL: County Executive Ficano, given your experience, and having lived through events like this, what advice do you give to the snowbound, especially for safety — safety advice?

ROBERT FICANO: Well — well, first of all, be prepared for it. When you see that it’s coming in advance, go and buy bottled water. Have some extra food, and be prepared for things like, if your refrigerator goes out, your electricity goes out, your power, be prepared for those type of things.

And, also, I know that cell phones are great, but, many times, they go out, especially when there’s a lot of use in a particular area. I know landlines are going out of style a little bit, but we find that it’s helpful to have landlines as well.

GWEN IFILL: How about that for you, Major Winkler, same question? There are still people north of here, Philadelphia, New York, tonight, who are still feeling the brunt of the storm. What advice do you give them?

MAJ. JOHN WINKLER: Don’t go out on the roads until the local authorities in those areas have had a chance to clear them, because it’s very difficult to do those jobs when you have a lot of people moving out there. Hopefully, they have lots of food to get through for a while. And, if they need something, be patient, because everyone’s working very hard.

But there’s a lot of people that need help, and the conditions are very rough out there.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like patience is the watchword, at the very least. MAJ. JOHN WINKLER: Patience is good, if we can have it.

GWEN IFILL: Major Winkler and County Executive Robert Ficano, thank you both very much.

ROBERT FICANO: Thank you.