Snowed under?

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON, DC | October 2, 2002


Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow -- but don't expect FEMA money to accumulate along with it.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is adding new qualifiers for snow emergency declarations that could make it harder for states to get money for snow removal.

So who cares? Many people think of a winter snow deluge as a benign winter wonderland. In parts of snow-deprived California, parents let their kids stay home from school to play when the white stuff falls. One lady was filmed lifting snow-filled shopping bags into her car.

But snow can be a serious disaster. Take the small town of Burns, Wy. Several years ago a blizzard hit. All utilities were knocked out for several days, remembers Art Storey, who was captain of The Salvation Army in Cheyenne at the time.

"Most people in the area had woodstoves or fireplaces," said Storey. "After several days of being snowbound and unable to replenish the wood supply, they began to burn their furniture in order to keep from freezing."

The Salvation Army rushed in several cords of wood and a few tons of coal, and delivered the supplies via snowmobile to residents.

Will FEMA's new snow rules leave more people burning their coffee tables?

Not necessarily, say FEMA officials, but the new policy does mean that big snows will be treated more like any other disaster.

Currently, to be considered for emergency or disaster status, a state or county must show "heavy snowfall over a very extended period of time; severe winds and extraordinary drifting; extraordinary ice formation; and cumulative effect of snow on the ground."

What constitutes "extraordinary" ice formation -- an unusual amount or, arguably, strange and wondrous shapes -- is up for grabs.

FEMA's new policy would solve some of this ambiguity by requiring that states also show certain impacts: highway closures, power outages, search-and-rescue operations, and the opening of relief shelters, to name a few.

The new rules feature no set "formula" for declaring a snow disaster. FEMA officials said the agency would look at the severity of the storm and the inability of the local government to handle it.

FEMA doesn't supply personnel during snow disasters, but reimburses states for money they have spent -- largely on de-icing and snow removal -- after their governors ask the president for a disaster declaration.

FEMA has been regularly offering snow-related assistance to states since about 1977, after the northeastern U.S. experienced an extraordinary series of winter storms.

Prior to that, only seven winter storm incidents were declared nationwide dating back to 1953.

Surprisingly, states that have mediocre amounts of snowfall will potentially be more affected by the new rules than states that stay buried all winter.

That's because states with occasional big snows -- such as Maryland -- often contract out snow removal rather than prepare in-house for what amounts to an occasional need.

"These contracts are very expensive," said Quentin Banks, public information officer for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, "The amount that counties budget quickly runs out."

That's where FEMA's snow rules come in. In recent years, Maryland has had one-third of its winter budget during snow emergencies and disasters reimbursed by FEMA.

In the past nine years, the state spent more than $254 million for winter operations, including some $43 million provided by FEMA.

Without FEMA funds, snow removal budgets could get tight. And if snow removal takes longer than normal, it can increase the impact on vulnerable people -- even in areas accustomed to snow.

When Buffalo, N.Y. -- known by some as the U.S. blizzard capital -- got seven feet of snow, the city essentially shut down for a few days, remembers Joann Hale, a Church World Service disaster response and recovery liaison.

"Food pantries -- the local church pantries and community pantries -- ran out of food very quickly because people couldn't drive or work or cash checks, so they walked to the nearest food pantry for help. Then the pantries ran out of necessities because they couldn't get shipments in."

When North Dakota had blizzard after blizzard in 1997, some people started naming the storms as if they were hurricanes, remembers Beth Dewald of the Buffalo Valley chapter of the American Red Cross.

"The rural population was really affected," she said. "So were elderly people who suddenly couldn't receive things like Meals on Wheels."

Snowfall and effective snow removal also have ramifications for spring flooding, she added. "We start looking at that in January."

If snow removal slows down, churches might want to consider preparing -- before winter's onset -- to open as shelters. Having a backup generator -- one that can run heat, not just emergency lighting -- is a necessity, said Dewald.

"Have people become familiar with operating the generator," she added, cautioning that improperly operating a generator indoors can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

On Wednesday -- with 87-degree temperatures in the mid-Atlantic, Hurricane Lili bearing down on the Gulf Coast and California's schoolchildren dreaming of a white Christmas -- who has time to think about the ramifications of snow?

FEMA hopes at least some disaster responders take time to consider it. The snow rule changes are currently posted for a period of comment that lasts until Nov. 1. Officials said the changes could take effect later this winter, after comments are reviewed.


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