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Colorado Gets Hit with Second Snowstorm in Two Weeks

December 29, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

RON RATZELL, Colorado Department of Transportation: This is the first back-to-back storm I’ve seen this bad.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: Ron Ratzell drives a snow plow for the Colorado Department of Transportation. He and more than 70 of his colleagues spent the night trying to keep Denver’s major highways open in the teeth of the second major storm to hit the city in a week.

RON RATZELL: It’s about as heavy as I’ve ever seen it here. It’s been tough to keep up with this storm; it accumulates so fast.

TOM BEARDEN: Even though all of their equipment and personnel have been working 12-hour shifts, the state was still forced to close nearly all of the major highways in the eastern half of the state.

Last Wednesday, rapid accumulation, coupled with high winds, shut down Denver International Airport for two days, stranding thousands of people and ruining holiday plans.

There was much less chaos this morning, even though 500 flights were cancelled in anticipation of the snow continuing to fall through Sunday. Airport spokesman Steve Snyder bristled at the suggestion from some critics that the nation’s fifth-busiest airport was unprepared for last week’s blizzard.

STEVE SNYDER, Denver International Airport: “Unprepared,” in our minds, is a poor word, because we were prepared. We did have crews out there the entire time. They were working as hard as they possibly could.

But there are some times when the conditions just come to the point where can’t you do anything. So you can be as prepared as you want, but when you’re doing snow removal — and it’s not doing very good — you can have 100 crews out there covering every square foot of the runway, and the airfield, the taxiways, and all of that. If the wind is undoing and Mother Nature is undoing what you just did, you’re not going to make any progress.

TOM BEARDEN: Snyder says the airport hopes to better coordinate snow removal efforts between the airlines, which are responsible for clearing the gates and ramp areas, and the airport authority, which clears runways and taxiways.

At a news conference last night, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper said it could be a long weekend for air travelers.

MAYOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER, Denver: You know, the storm we had last week was 24 inches in 24 hours. I mean, by most accounts, the second-largest accumulation in a 24-hour period in the history of the city.

So this appears to be, at this point, much slower. It’s going to be a little more prolonged. I’m not saying that we won’t still have some serious problems on Saturday and Sunday.

I mean, some of the forecasters are projecting up to 33 inches from this afternoon through Sunday. I mean, if we get 33 inches of snow, there will be certainly periods of time where the airport will not be able to function.

TOM BEARDEN: The city averages about 60 inches of snowfall annually, but major storms, particularly back-to-back storms, are rare. The last major blizzard to paralyze the city occurred in 2003.

A major snowstorm always provokes questions about why the city doesn’t have more snow removal equipment, and city officials usually respond by saying that infrequent storms don’t justify the expense.

MAYOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER: If you’re going to go out and spend, again, off the back of the envelope, $15 million to double the number of plows that we have, that’s a significant expenditure.

But if we look at the overall economic impact, I mean, we only need those plows once every seven or eight years. But if the economic impact is significant enough — and we are doing that analysis now — then I think that we have to look at that.

PAT KENNEDY, Denver Street Maintenance: This screen gives us a lot of information that we use to help us decide what to do with our future deployments.

TOM BEARDEN: Pat Kennedy is a senior street maintenance engineer.

PAT KENNEDY: Our typical events are more in the three- to four-inch range. The weather in Denver tends to have sunny days a lot in the wintertime. So we’ll get an event. We can keep up with the plowing. And then, with the next few days, the snow will melt off with Mother Nature.

These last two events have both been major events on the order of 18 inches-plus, this one, if it reaches its predictions. And we’re having a period of cold weather, so we’re not getting the aid of Mother Nature.

Our fleets are designed for working with a typical storm. When we get these heavier storms, then we look at augmenting our fleet.

TOM BEARDEN: Kennedy says the city is trying to be smarter about deploying its fleet. He showed us a computer resource called MDSS, or Maintenance Decision Support System.

PAT KENNEDY: It provides us with real-time data for pavement temperatures, snow or weather conditions, and predictions of the event for the next 48 hours, and what treatments would be best for us to employ to keep our roads in a passable condition.

TOM BEARDEN: The mayor says the city has hired private contractors and mobilized all of its snow removal assets, calling the effort “unprecedented.”

MAYOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Even five years ago, we would have 46, 48 plows total on the street. Whereas, by the time all is said and done, you know, on this storm, we’re going to be somewhere between 160 and 180 vehicles. So the manpower and the equipment that we are putting in place is unprecedented in the city’s history.

TOM BEARDEN: But conditions are still difficult in many parts of the city, particularly on side streets that are deeply rutted and icy.

ELDERLY WOMAN: I’ve been stuck.

VOLUNTEER: You’ve been stuck here all these days, since the last flew through?

ELDERLY WOMAN: Yes.

VOLUNTEER: Do you have enough food?

ELDERLY WOMAN: I have enough food.

TOM BEARDEN: The city is coordinating efforts to dig out the elderly who can’t shovel the snow on their own, volunteers like this group, who helped a 90-year-old woman with her walkway.

Back out on the highways, crews will work around the clock, even while trying to cope with the piles clogging some lanes leftover from last week.

STACEY STEGMAN, Colorado Department of Transportation: The biggest thing that we really had to focus on was really getting ready for this storm moving out snow that had accumulated on ramps and along acceleration, deceleration lanes that had narrow lanes, because we just don’t have anyplace to store this new snow.

TOM BEARDEN: How much of a challenge is that?

STACEY STEGMAN: It’s hugely challenging, because there’s no place to put it. We can’t just plow it over the guard rail. There’s nowhere to store it. So we actually had to lift it, put it in dump trucks, and haul it away inside our maintenance facilities or anywhere a little bit of extra land and just pile it.

TOM BEARDEN: Stegman says the agency has been pulling in plows from all over the state and hiring private contractors. They’re hoping that a respite from the heavy snowfall currently forecast for several hours tonight and tomorrow will help them keep up through the weekend, at least in the city.