Saturday, March 15, 2003

Snow melts to pools of red

Spring is almost here, but winter won't soon be forgotten

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Raleigh Baker, of North College Hill, takes advantage of the spring-like weather to wash his 1999 Mustang Friday.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
Like a snowball to the neck that slides down your back before you can stop it, this winter left a red mark and a chill.

Tristate communities went millions of dollars in the red to plow snow and melt ice, and now are scrambling to cover cost overruns.

School districts were ready to cut spring vacation or extend the year to make up for snow days that exceeded limits. And when it wasn't weather, it was the flu, forcing dozens of schools and districts to shut down.

Winter storms piled up more snow than any winter since 1995-'96. It was 15th snowiest winter in Cincinnati history dating to 1835, according to National Weather Service.

Still, the winter that ends Friday wasn't the coldest. Or deadliest. Or slipperiest.

It just seemed that way.

How bad was it? It was so bad ...
Calls to AAA for service rose dramatically, especially in February.
Complaints - ranging from dead batteries to stuck vehicles - were up 8 percent in January and 17 percent in February, compared with 2002.
And those suspension-eating potholes?
"In the summer we normally get one to two calls per month about pothole damage," said Sandra Guile, AAA spokeswoman. "During February this year we got one to two calls a day."

Turfway Park race track in Northern Kentucky canceled 13 full days of racing this winter, and two others were cut short. Normally, they lose three to six days. "It's a substantial amount of money, and we're making an effort to recapture some of those races," said President Bob Elliston. Turfway is racing on Monday, usually a dark day, and has added races to the normal schedules on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Federated Department Stores, the parent of Lazarus, Macy's and Bloomingdale's, was among a number of retailers forced to close stores because of a winter storm over the Presidents' Day holiday last month. Continued cold has hurt demand for spring merchandise, and the Cincinnati-based retailer is forecasting a 3 percent to 4 percent drop in its March same-store sales (reflecting sales at stores open at least a year).

The animals at the zoo stayed inside. Well, most of them.
Winter tends to be a slow time at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Festival of Lights drew 180,000, but when winter clamped down, so did progress on various projects.
"It put us behind with our construction projects and preparation for spring. We're hustling right now to catch up," said Gregg Hudson, president.
Many of the zoo's animals that have indoor-outdoor mobility chose to spend more of their time indoors, Hudson said, but none suffered any weather-related hardships.

Not everyone was a loser:

"It was a heck of a winter, you guys really got it hard," said Joe Wojtonski, spokesman for Chicago-based Morton Salt, one the Greater Cincinnati's largest suppliers of road salt. He said demand was 125 percent greater than normal.
And gamblers looking to escape the thoughts of snow and ice flocked to riverboat casinos in January. Grand Victoria Casino attracted 39,420 more people that month than in 2002. Belterra and Argosy also saw increases, 26,480 and 17,444.
"It was the ice. I slid down my driveway," preschool teacher Kathy Miller, 52, of Blue Ash, said Friday. "It seemed like everything was accompanied by ice."

The region endured significant ice accumulations three times from Feb. 14-19.

Today, ice, thy name is mud.

The high today is expected to be 63. And that warming trend will continue through next week.

So go out, warm up and think back:

• Twice this winter the temperature didn't rise to zero. The minus-11 degrees on Jan. 27 tied the 40-year record for that date.

• On 33 days, the temperature didn't get above 32, compared with nine days last year.

• In February, 15 of the month's 28 days had no sunshine.

And just when we thought we'd seen it all, something weird would happen.

Snow rollers, whipped up by fierce winds on Feb. 12, brought hundreds of calls to local newspapers, radio and TV stations. Eight days later, frozen fog caused a string of accidents and two deaths in the Tristate.

The only winners seemed to be auto shops that repaired bent fenders, and replaced tires and cracked axles damaged by potholes.

"We just took damaged wheels to the recycling," said John Tinnus, owner of Cincinnati Tire. "We had almost a whole van full."

That said, Columbus sailed right by us. Ohio's capital had 50.6 inches of snow this year, nearly matching Cincinnati's all-time record of 53.9 inches in the famous winter of '77-'78, when the Ohio River froze.

"It seems like in Cincinnati, there were a lot more incidences of an inch or two," said Robin Gerhardt, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington.

In fact, the region had 16 snowfalls of at least one-tenth of an inch. Last year we had just five.


"We were out (plowing roads) something like 32 times," said Anderson Township Road Supervisor Dave Sparke. "Normally, it's eight or 10 times. It's not the depth of the snow, it's the frequency."

Anderson has spent $39,987 on road-crew overtime alone since Jan. 1. Last year, the township spent about $20,000 total, and in 2001 just $11,611.

The city of Cincinnati took an even bigger hit. Since Dec. 22, the city's transportation and road operations department has paid $370,000 in overtime, mostly to road crews, which exceeds its annual overtime budget by $80,000.

And road salt: The city used $1,450,000 worth of salt since Dec. 22. Its annual salt budget is less than half that - $660,000.

"You try to have some contingency funds," said Matt Manion, the city's superintendent of transportation and road operations. "We're working from that now."

Hamilton County spent $1.6 million on snow and ice removal, using 20,000 tons of salt, more than three times the amount used last winter, according to Steve Mary, a maintenance engineer in the county's engineering department.

In Warren County, officials are still reeling.

"This has certainly been one of our worst and heaviest winters," County Engineer Neil Tunison said. In all, the county spent $229,000 on road salt. Last winter: $60,000.

The county paid $99,900 in overtime, compared with just $11,900 last winter. Tunison's office is only authorized to spend about $80,000 for overtime each year.

"It doesn't seem like a lot of money," he said, "but that actually could replace a small bridge."

West Chester Township spent $99,779 more this year than last on road crew overtime, salt, diesel fuel for plow trucks, and contracted cul-de-sac plowing, according to Scott Campbell, the finance director.

This year's overtime for the road crew so far is $56,030. Last year's overtime: $20,541.

Like most communities, West Chester is now trying to figure out how to make up the balance.

The figures are no sunnier for Butler County officials: Crews worked 3,319 overtime hours at a cost of $129,446 - or $62,746 more than was budgeted.

The county used 8,922 tons of salt at a cost of $286,039. That's 2,422 more tons than expected, and $78,039 over budget.

In Clermont County, Chief Deputy Engineer Pat Manger said, "We budgeted $95,000 for overtime and we used $75,000, so that's roughly 80 percent. Last year at this time we'd only used $27,000."

Schools felt pinch

Benefiting from students' use of public transportation, Cincinnati Public Schools had just three snow days this year, said spokeswoman Christine Wolff. The district's last snow day before this winter was March 9, 1999.

Yet many districts reached 25-year highs in days missed because of weather and related illness: 16 lost days for Walton-Verona, and 13 in Adams County/Ohio Valley Schools. Kentucky lawmakers this week voted to forgive those emergency days, but in Ohio, students probably won't have that luxury.

Shop owners not in the auto-repair business also paid a price.

"Yeah, when it was extremely cold or icy or snowy, people just didn't seem to come down," said Neil Luken, owner of Charles Bare and Sons Meats in Over-the-Rhine's Findlay Market.

Kentucky suffered, too

In Kenton County, "This is one of the worst winters I can remember because it came, quit, came, quit, came, quit," said Bob Krohman, director of public works.

Kenton budgeted $75,000 for salt and $12,000 for sand, and ended up using about $92,000 and $14,000.

"I've only been with the county for a year," said Robert Horine, Campbell County administrator. "But from the records I've looked at, this has been one of our worst winters in recent years."

On Friday, President Bush declared emergency status for Bracken and Grant counties from the Feb. 15-16 ice storms there.

Boone County spent $200,000 in materials, having budgeted $125,000, according to Greg Sketch, county engineer.

"What's so disappointing," Sketch said, "is that this money is just gone. It's not like paving a road. Once you spend it, there's nothing to show for it."

Except, of course, for the memories, encased in ice as they might be.

Jennifer Edwards, Steve Kemme, William Croyle and Marie McCain contributed.


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