Leaders of several Monroe County departments planned to meet today to critique the county’s handling of the big snowstorm and ensuing bitter cold that paralyzed most of the county’s road network.
Randy Pierce, managing director of the Monroe County Road Commission, reported his crews were making headway Thursday against icy snow pack and drifts that blocked many of the county’s rural roads. But he said his agency’s efforts had been hamstrung by a threadbare budget and other county officials’ decision not to ban all nonessential travel during and after the storm, as was done in neighboring Ohio.
The budget woes, Mr. Pierce said, left the road commission with only 30 trucks and 45 drivers — not enough to keep 1,500 lane-miles of roadway passable during a major storm — while the absence of a travel ban resulted in cars becoming stranded and abandoned, blocking roads and hampering his small fleet’s snow-clearing efficiency.
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“It hurt us that we weren’t able to shut the county down,” Mr. Pierce said. “The stranded cars blocked the roads and slowed us down. If they could have shut this down like they did in Toledo, we’d have had these roads open.”
On Tuesday, he said, the county hired nine front-end loaders from Stoneco to work with its trucks to clear snowdrifts. But even then, blowing snow made stranded cars hard enough to see that Mr. Pierce drove his own four-wheel-drive pickup ahead of a loader to make sure roads weren’t blocked before sending the big machine in.
J. Henry Lievens, who represents Whiteford Township on the board of county commissioners, said he was “not going to throw any snowballs” blaming the situation on any particular agency or officials, but “I take exception with the way we coordinated our efforts.”
It was particularly unacceptable, Mr. Lievens said, that there was no announcement urging motorists to stay off the roads until “late Tuesday,” by which time abandoned cars were a widespread problem that blocked plows and depleted the availability of tow trucks.
Jason Sheppard, a county commissioner from Bedford Township, said one “couldn’t blame just one entity” for Monroe County’s snow-fighting woes, but that during travels around the township after the storm, he “saw that it was a major fumbling of the ball.”
Mr. Sheppard said he was one of several county officials, also including Sheriff Dale Malone, Emergency Management Director Mark Hammond, Administrator/Chief Financial Officer Michael Bosanac, and road commission leaders who will attend the 12:30 p.m. meeting today at the Central Dispatch center on South Raisinville Road.
“We need to debrief and collaborate an effort to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again,” Mr. Sheppard said.
Bob Stammer, the road commission’s chairman, said even a “travel advisory” the county’s Emergency Management Department issued Tuesday probably would not have been issued had he not requested a response to the stranded-car problem.
In Ohio, county emergency management agencies have authority to declare weather emergencies at one of three levels.
Level 1 is essentially a caution, Level 2 a warning, and Level 3 an outright ban of all but emergency and essential travel. Those who defy a Level 3 emergency are subject to ticketing and vehicle impoundment.
No such system exists in Michigan. Mr. Bosanac said he is consulting county lawyers to determine if such an alert-level system could be established.
“If there’s an alert we can get out, we wanted to do that,” he said. “It’s a point we will review, and get ahead of it next time.”
But first and foremost, the county administrator said, “we want the public’s cooperation,” which includes heeding advance warnings about impending storms.
As for how much manpower and equipment a $9 million budget provides the road commission, Mr. Pierce said, “I’m not making excuses … but I just don’t have enough equipment or money to do it. It’s like going to Florida [on vacation] with just $5.”
“I apologize to the people of Monroe County,” he added later. “This is not something I am proud of, but my hands were tied.”
Mr. Pierce said the $9 million budget, funded by state fuel tax revenues, goes toward maintaining trucks, roads, personnel, and supplies, which leave little extra for major events.
“If we spend more money on winter maintenance, there’s road projects that won’t get done in the summer,” Mr. Stammer said.
Help not requested
County officials failed to ask the Michigan Department of Transportation for help.
Monroe is one of 64 counties statewide, out of 83 total, whose road commission maintains state highways under an MDOT contract. That spreads resources even thinner during storms, but in emergencies those road commissions may ask to suspend the contract and get state help maintaining freeways and truck routes.
Mr. Stammer and Mr. Pierce said, however, that such a request had to go through the Emergency Management Department to be forwarded to MDOT. They said they filled out required paperwork on Tuesday, only to be asked Wednesday why they hadn’t asked for state help.
Mr. Hammond did not respond to a request Thursday to his office for comment.
Jeff Cranson, a spokesman at MDOT headquarters in Lansing, said he wasn’t sure if the request had to go through that channel, but in any case, it hadn’t come in.
“I can’t say who dropped the ball, but we didn’t get the request,” he said on Thursday.
In the department’s University region, which includes the southeast corner of the state except for the immediate Detroit area, Shiawassee County and the city of Lansing both asked for help maintaining state routes during the storm, Mr. Cranson said.
“This was a storm of epic proportions that hit everybody hard,” he said. “Everybody was stretched thin and this was a very unusual event.”
Schools in the Bedford, Monroe, and Dundee districts were among those in Monroe County that closed today for a fifth straight day, and officials blamed road conditions.
Many residential streets still had just a single lane cleared down to tire tracks, Bedford Superintendent Mark Kleinhans said while touring part of the township Thursday in a school bus to sample the conditions.
Even the primary roads with two lanes cleared for traffic, he said, had snowbanks on their shoulders, which would leave children waiting for buses a choice of standing in the deep snow or out on the pavement — neither of which is safe.
Buses off roads
“There’s absolutely no way we could run these buses on these roads,” Mr. Kleinhans said.
“We have been checking streets and roads in the district all week and until we are sure buses can operate safely in all areas of the district and student and parent drivers, as well as staff, have safe driving conditions, schools need to remain closed,” Barry Martin, Monroe’s superintendent, echoed in a statement announcing today’s closing. “Hopefully with warmer weather over the weekend, conditions will improve and things will be back to normal next week.”
From the storm Sunday into early Monday, National Weather Service spotters reported snowfalls ranging from 8.6 inches near Newport, in the county’s northeast corner, to 13 inches in the north-central community of Carleton. Most other readings were between 9 and 11 inches.
That occurred just four days after a New Year’s storm that dropped an initial 8 to 10 inches on much of the area, and was followed by strong westerly winds that caused persistent blowing and drifting snow not just in Monroe County but across southeast Michigan and most of northwest Ohio.
Mr. Pierce said the road commission inquired ahead of time about borrowing heavy equipment if necessary, and got them out on Tuesday morning.
Through the day Monday, he said, storm cleanup appeared to be going well, but “Monday night, we lost it” because it became cold enough to render salt ineffective and drifts overwhelmed the rural roads in open areas.
When the wind still howled, roads drifted back shut within an hour or two of being plowed, Mr. Stammer said. The road commission’s top priority on local roads, he said, became responding to emergencies.
“We tried to help people out as best we can,” the chairman said.
Contact David Patch at: email@example.com or 419-724-6094.