Global warming? No wonder the scientists changed the appellation to climate change! During the past month, no one could make an argument that temperatures were going up, but there would be little dispute that the climate has changed, at least for this winter.
The Farmer’s Almanac got it right, predicting that this would be a colder and snowier winter. And I doubt they have the Capital Weather Gang on contract for forecasting.
Residents’ frustrations with the state’s snow-clearing abilities are boiling over, and local officials are struggling to respond to the phone calls and e-mails about particular streets. In Fairfax County, snow plowing is the responsibility of the Virginia Department of Transportation, the state agency that operates and maintains roads in the county, and in 92 other counties across the Commonwealth. Arlington County opted out of the state system in 1932, and does its own plowing. As municipalities, not counties, Falls Church City and the City of Alexandria also have the legal responsibility for plowing their own streets. Contrary to some belief, Fairfax County does not pay the state to maintain our roads; funding for VDOT comes from state income taxes and other state-generated taxes and fees, not county real estate taxes. The extraordinarily heavy snow storms have taxed (pun intended) state resources to respond to the crisis. It shouldn’t be a surprise, though. Local officials have pointed out, time and again, that reductions at the state level, especially for Northern Virginia, are too severe. The General Assembly has been complicit in that regard, failing to provide adequate resources to address local needs. In the spring and summer, mowing was the problem. Now, snow.
VDOT crews, including private plows under contract to the state, are working 12-hour shifts around the clock, but many streets simply have too much snow for a pick-up with a plow blade to handle. VDOT called in heavy equipment from Hampton Roads, Richmond, Salem, and Lynchburg to assist with snow removal. VDOT’s District Administrator noted that the challenges of these snow events far exceeds what was experienced during the Blizzard of 1996, and even Hurricane Isabel. One snow plow driver, hailed by a local resident who just wanted to say “thanks,” asked if she was going to pull a gun on him! Apparently, it’s happened more than once.
A number of complaints center around whether emergency responders can get to calls for service. In Sleepy Hollow Woods, a transport ambulance (private) got stuck while taking a patient to medical treatment. Heavy equipment responded to dig out the ambulance, but it is believed that, adding insult to injury, the incident triggered a water main break in the neighborhood. Fairfax County Fire and Rescue crews make incredible efforts to respond to calls to service, even if they have to take portable life-saving equipment in on foot, and carry the patient out to an ambulance at the nearest cleared road.
On many local streets, the snow moguls left by incomplete or non-existent plowing were worthy of Olympic competition. Fire hydrants are buried by plowed snow banks, and many residents have expressed concern about fire suppression when hydrants cannot be easily located. Neighbors are asked to uncover the nearest hydrant to their homes if possible. Similarly, in an unprecedented move, neighbors across Fairfax County were asked to shovel snow from sidewalks and school bus stops to allow students to get to school. Every school day lost means an extra day tacked on to the end of the year, and unexpected snow days are wreaking havoc with potential summer plans for families and teachers.
The storms also damaged trees and shrubs in local landscapes. Although some will survive unscathed, Virginia Cooperative Extension recommends that any snow removal should be done gently and carefully to avoid further damage to weakened limbs and branches. More information is available through the International Society of Arboriculture (www.mac-isa.org), or Virginia Cooperative Extension Service (offices.ext.vt.edu/fairfax.)
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]