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East Coast Slowly Digs Out From Record Snowfall

February 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As much of the East Coast continues to shovel out from this week's record-breaking snowfall, air travel and other businesses assessed the damage to their bottom lines. After a report from Ray Suarez, Jim Lehrer talks to an aviation reporter for more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the record-breaking snowstorm.

Ray Suarez has the cleanup story.

RAY SUAREZ: Sunrise brought the scale of the big dig into stark, snowy relief. From Washington, through Baltimore, Philadelphia, and into New York City, crews labored to move mountains. They also worked to bring heat and light back for more than 100,000 households from Virginia to New Jersey that lost power during yesterday’s coast-coating blizzard.

Up and down the East Coast, except for New York City, schools were closed again today, and the federal government was shut down for an unprecedented fourth straight day, as the capital dug out from its record-breaking snow.

With too much snow, and not enough machines to move it, Washington, D.C., is importing hundreds of additional trucks and plows from nearby states.

Adrian Fenty is mayor of the District of Columbia.

ADRIAN FENTY, mayor, Washington, D.C.: So, today, all of this type of equipment will be out in the tight, narrow residential neighborhoods, on the hilly streets, digging things up. What we hope is to be able to get people out of their neighborhoods by tomorrow and get them back to work.

RAY SUAREZ: All forms of travel along the East Coast remained difficult, if not downright dangerous, with ripple effects across the nation.

Airports tried to get back up and flying, to an extent, in the face of up to 6,000 canceled flights this week, by some estimates. Washington’s three airports reopened, with limited service. Philadelphia International resumed some flights. And New York’s three major airports, Newark, JFK and La Guardia, were all trying to get back to normal. But, even today, 2,000 flights were canceled nationwide.

WOMAN: The next available flight for me to leave is the 16th.

RAY SUAREZ: Major highways were still in bad shape, not to mention many local and neighborhood routes. Crews in Maryland had to rescue stranded drivers from eight-foot drifts.

And the National Guard was called out in several states for support. This Pennsylvania unit most recently served in Iraq.

SGT. JEREMIAH BORING, Pennsylvania National Guard: A Crown Vic in two feet of snow doesn’t work. So, what we do is, we come out, and we give emergency personnel the extra mobility necessary to get out and do their job.

RAY SUAREZ: And mass transit was affected as well. Amtrak limited service, and regional bus and train service was largely parked.

The fire chief of Montgomery County, Md., said, people wanting to get back to their routines right away can make things complicated. For one thing, pedestrians are sharing the roadways with cars and trucks.

RICHARD BOWERS, fire chief, Montgomery County, Md.: The next 48 hours after the storm becomes even more challenging, because people venture out, and things begin to occur. You have pedestrian issues. You have traffic issues.

RAY SUAREZ: Thousands of homes have precariously dangling ice, and awnings, gutters, and roofs weighed down by accumulated snow and ice. And plenty of houses can’t be lived in at all, when the temperature’s in the 20s. The collapse of a massive old tree took down power lines to a small Washington side street. Utility workers couldn’t start restoring electricity until the tree was gone.

Renee Workman and her family toughed it out overnight, as the house cooled down.

WOMAN: The middle part of the house wasn’t as cold as the outer parts of the house. It’s colder now today than it was actually yesterday.

RAY SUAREZ: Now she’s packing up and heading to an aunt’s house until she has heat again. She’s been told it might be another day or two.

Ike Leggett is the county executive of Montgomery County, Maryland. As glad as he is the sun is finally shining, he said the two big storms are costing his government serious money.

ISIAH “IKE” LEGGETT, county executive, Montgomery County, Md.: Well, normally, a storm that we would generally have typically between six to 12 inches, we can recover in about 36 hours.

It will take us quite a bit of time longer, because what we have to do here is, literally, in some communities, actually pick the snow up, because, some communities, we have had 12, 15 feet of snow that is still on the ground. We have very small streets with a number of car that are parked along the way. We simply cannot push the snow aside. We literally have to go in and pick the snow up.

RAY SUAREZ: The county budgets up to $15 million dollars in a normal winter for snow operations, sand, salt, overtime. Just this past week will cost what a whole winter does. And the county loses on the revenue side as well, as closed businesses aren’t collecting sales tax. States are waiting for federal disaster declarations to help them pay for emergency recovery.

JIM LEHRER: More now, specifically on the storm’s impact on air travel.

Alan Levin covers aviation for USA Today.

Alan, welcome.

ALAN LEVIN, USA Today: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: How widespread is the disruption in airline travel right now?

ALAN LEVIN: Well, we’re coming out of it right now, but what we have seen over the past week is truly extraordinary.

I just got numbers a short while ago indicating that, from Friday through yesterday, the airlines canceled 13,000 flights. And from what I’m hearing from people in the industry, they have never seen those kind of cancellations due to weather, ever.

JIM LEHRER: Well, explain where — how — there’s a ripple affect, is there not? It wasn’t just on the East Coast. It was primarily on the East Coast. But explain the ripples from a storm like that, as it affects the airlines.

ALAN LEVIN: Well, what happens in this case is, you know, as — as you just reported, places like Philadelphia, La Guardia in New York, they’re operating flights now, but the airlines have this huge backlog of passengers who were on canceled flights who need to get where they’re going.

By the way, they estimate, on those 13,000 flights, that that’s approximately one million passengers. So, that’s a lot of people to accommodate. You have very few open seats available. And, so, the airlines are going to be struggling for at least into next week to try to accommodate all those people.

JIM LEHRER: Now, like, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, they moved the airplanes out ahead of the storm, did they not, and canceled a lot of flights before the first flake of snow came down. Explain that process. Why do they do that?

ALAN LEVIN: You know, airlines make a calculated decision that it is better to move everything out of harm’s way and just give up, essentially, for one day or one-and-a-half days, so that it will be — they can recover faster when the storm ends.

It — it — it works. You know, it — when you have these disruptions in the summertime that are less predictable, when you get a big thunderstorm that hits New York…


ALAN LEVIN: … or something like that, then you end up with planes in the wrong places. You have crews, pilots, who, by law, can’t work beyond a certain number of hours, and it can be much more chaotic to try to get back to speed.

But I also think there’s another factor at work here which is driving this high number of cancellations. And that is, many of your listeners will remember — or your viewers — that the airlines have taken a lot of criticism in the past few years for stranding people on the tarmacs.

And the government, just a month or two ago, announced that, starting in April, it was going to fine airlines large amounts of money if they strand passengers.

And I’m being told by folks that these cancellations were higher than they have seen in previous similar storms. And you have to think that at least part of what’s going on here is airlines calculating that they would rather keep the planes on the ground than risk having them stuck out in the snow with passengers on board.

JIM LEHRER: Where do they — as a practical matter, give us an example where an airline actually puts its airplanes while the snow is falling. I mean, where do they fly them to, and how do they get them back, and how do they get the — how do they put it all back together again?

ALAN LEVIN: Well, I’m told it’s — it’s quite an act.

For example, just finding a place to put the airplane can be tricky. They have these elaborate conference calls. And they will call their station chiefs all around the country and say, do you have space on the tarmac for a couple of planes?

And, so, then they will send plane A and B to that spot. But, of course, you don’t want to fly them across country to Los Angeles or something like that. So, they’re — they’re scrambling like crazy to sort of find places to put these planes.

But it’s not just that. It’s an enormous orchestration going on. They have got to locate all their pilots. And, as I say, pilots have pretty strict rules governing how many hours a day they can work. So, you have got to find pilots who are legal to work, flight attendants. You have got to put them — figure out how to get those people to where the planes are.

Another issue getting your employees to work. You know, here in D.C., it’s been a real struggle with, in some cases, the subway not running, and also you have got to get hotels for your workers at the airport. And the folks at the airline who sort of manage this thing really earn their money after a week like this.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any way, Alan, finally, to even guess how to long it’s going to be before it’s all put back together and everything is — is going to be working the way it’s supposed to be working at this time?

ALAN LEVIN: Well, I — you know, I just talked to someone up at Newark tower, and he said they’re running a more or less normal operation now.

But the big question is, how long will it take to reaccommodate all these passengers who, you know, have — have missed flights, who are stranded? You know, I talked to a guy yesterday who had tried to leave Cancun, Mexico, on Saturday. He had made it as far as Fort Lauderdale, and he was crossing his fingers, hoping he could get back to Washington, D.C., today. So, it’s going to be at least into next week before those people get to where they’re going.


Alan Levin, thank you very much.

ALAN LEVIN: Oh, thank you.