Officials come to grips with toll of blizzard

Officials come to grips with toll of blizzard

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Denise Dunbar)

More than a week after the last street in Alexandria was deemed passable by emergency vehicles following the blizzard that dumped nearly two feet of snow on the Port City, city leaders are still surveying the storm’s effects.

A winter storm hovered over the D.C. region from January 22 until early January 24, shutting down most roads for several days. Local government was closed until January 27, and Alexandria City Public Schools were closed until January 29.

City spokesman Craig Fifer said Tuesday officials still are examining the total cost of the storm, from the 80 trucks and snow plows used to clear streets and salt roads to emergency services and lost productivity. But the storm likely has busted the initial $800,000 set aside in this year’s budget for snow events.

“It’s probably in the millions, although we don’t have an exact amount yet,” Fifer said. “We have an $800,000 snow budget, but there’s room in the fund balance set aside for snow and weather contingencies. Obviously, we’d prefer to get reimbursement on anything we can [from state and federal emergency agencies].”

In the days following the storm, some on social media expressed irritation that their street had not yet been plowed. But Fifer said that while drivers try to plow residential streets as efficiently as possible after they are finished with primary and secondary arteries, there is no set plan ordering which streets are plowed when.

“A lot of residential streets were actually reached between doing primary and secondary streets,” he said. “If a plow driver has to get from point A to point B to get to another major street, they might go down a residential street. And then sometimes we have to clear a specific street because of a 9-1-1 emergency, when first responders would request a plow.

“After the primary and secondary streets, trucks try to use a logical grid approach, going up and down residential streets for greater efficiency. But in areas where there isn’t a reliable grid, drivers have to start making choices, and there are a lot of variables with that.”

But for Alexandria City Public Schools, the effects are more immediate and concrete. Since students have missed six days of school, and there are three non-state mandated days baked into the academic calendar, the district will have to use two of its planned make-up days: February 5 and March 18.

If school is cancelled again this school year, students will attend a make-up day on April 22. ACPS spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said if the district hits a total of nine snow days, officials will need to examine the possibility of lengthening the school day to make up for lost classroom time.

Lloyd said the missed time has had an effect on classroom instruction as well.

“We had to push back the end of the quarter from February 5 to [February] 8,” she said. “We need to allow students more time to turn in work, and we need to allow teachers to reschedule tests and grade the work. We’re working hard with students to make sure there is no lasting impact because of the loss of days.

“We had to cancel SAT testing that was scheduled for the Saturday that the storm hit as well. That doesn’t really affect things, but we just had to push it back a little further.”

Business leaders also are waiting for data on the storm’s economic impact. Joe Haggerty, president and CEO of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, said the blizzard likely affected different local industries to varying degrees.

“From what I’ve heard, a number of restaurateurs tried to stay open, but sometimes they had trouble getting fresh food, so that hampered them from being able to serve their full menu,” Haggerty said. “From what I understand, once the storm had subsided, some received quite a bit of walk-in traffic from neighbors.

“That said, businesses like the small clothing boutiques I would think had to close.”

And for his part, Bill Reagan, executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, said the storm likely meant a brief stall in business activity.

“People pretty much stayed off the roads, so I think commerce just sort of took time off for the weekend,” he said. “People didn’t get out of their homes. Our office didn’t even open until Wednesday because we follow the city governmental guidelines. And once we were back, we were in the office and not getting out and going places.

“But all in all, everyone pulled together and took it in stride pretty well.”