With severe winter weather impacting the state frequently in recent years, some municipalities are wondering if they are experiencing a new normal and whether their tools are up to the task of responding.
Manchester Mayor Leo Diana held a press conference Monday with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman to urge the public’s patience and a request, if possible, to stay off the roads. Diana’s town did relatively well following the blizzard, which dumped more than three feet of snow across the state from Friday to Saturday.
Thirty-six hours after the storm, all the roads in Manchester had at least one lane open to travelers and only two utility customers lost power. The town’s recovery has been speedier than some of the state’s major cities, where some roads were still impassable Monday.
That’s not to say the town didn’t face some challenges. It received 32 inches of snow over the course of the storm. In the last few days residents phoned in 72 medical calls, more than 30 of them required a public works crew to aid first responders in getting to the patients.
Following the press conference, some of Manchester’s officials sat down with reporters and wondered whether severe weather would continue to hit Connecticut on such a frequent basis.
General Manager Scott Shanley said the state received more than 40 inches of snow in three weeks in early 2011. Later that year in October, a Nor’easter took down power lines across the state when tree branches, still bearing leaves, broke under the weight of heavy snow. This weekend’s blizzard has been called “historic” for the amount of snow it dropped on the state.
“Is this aberrant or is this what’s going to start happening?” Shanley asked.
If so, Shanley said the town may need to reassess the tools it needs to respond. Public Works Director Mark Carlino said that means taking a look at the town’s equipment.
“I think we do need to take a look going forward, if these type of storms are going to become more common, we need to see if there are other types of equipment we need to add into our arsenal,” he said.
Wyman, who along with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy spent much of the past few days touring the state and meeting with town officials, said in many cases payloaders were helpful.
“Many of our towns do not have the kind of equipment that is necessary for a storm like this. It’s just not plows anymore that will take care of a storm like this, we have a payloader situation,” she said, adding that she would like to see a statewide study assessing what kind of equipment towns had available.
Wyman said many towns saw equipment broken down in the storm because of the weight of the snow.
For its part, Manchester has four town-owned payloaders, which have been used to clean up the snow. There is a trained driver for each loader. The town also has brought in several contractors with payloaders. Carlino said the payloaders were tasked with not only removing snow, but also freeing other equipment that had become stuck.
Carlino said the town has 27 plow trucks and 17 employees in the Highway Department. However, he said the department could borrow workers from other areas of town government like the Sanitation and Parks Departments.
Though Carlino said the town had an adequate number of employees to operate the snow removal equipment, he said the staff of the Highway Department has dropped over the years since the Blizzard of 1978. Back then the department had 25 people, he said.
Since 1978, Manchester has grown both in population and in infrastructure. Carlino said the town has 25 more miles of roads than it did back then and has grown its list of equipment to match the need.
“Buckland Hills Mall did not exist in 1978,” he said. “You had roads out there, but they certainly weren’t six lanes.”
Reached by email in Windsor, officials described a similar situation. Public Works Director Brian Funk said that in 1984 — which was the oldest budget book he had available — Windsor had 41 people in the divisions that now make up public works, compared with 29 in the same divisions today. Further, in 1984 there were 112 miles of road to plow versus 133 miles today. Nevertheless, the town reported 98 percent of its roads were accessible Saturday night and 100 percent were accessible by Sunday morning, though there was still a lot of clearing work to be done at that point.
Funk said today’s equipment is much better and more productive. The department had six administrative staff in 1984 versus four today, but he said those personnel remain critical in terms of organizing the work, handling calls, ordering materials, etc.
Carlino didn’t say his department needs more people. But he said that when a severe storm occurs, the Public Works Department pulls in enough people to operate every piece of equipment available.
“I think we have to focus on the equipment and the needs. Our staff does a great job,” he said.
Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel C. Esty said this past October that these types of extreme weather events may more frequent than in the past.
Esty was careful to say the storms, including Hurricane Sandy, are not necessarily “evidence of climate change.” However, “what prudence argues is what the climate scientists believe is potentially happening is the increased intensity and frequency of wind storms, including hurricanes in Connecticut, and that a thoughtful state government would take that into account and plan for it.”