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A Dec. 26 blizzard left Brick Township, N.J. buried under drifts as high as 4 feet; disaster funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will help the township recoup much of the costs to fight the storm. Photo: Antony Hodge

By Jenni Spinner

This winter season was an especially brutal one, according to National Climactic Data Center figures. December was one of the top months ever for snow coverage. January saw cities from South Bend, Ind. to Huntsville, Ala. digging out from record-level snowfalls. And by mid-February, approximately 65% of the entire country was blanketed by the white stuff, with snow on the ground in every state but Florida.

However, severe winter storms can bring important lessons that endure long after the snow and ice melt away.

Relief from pricey weather-fighting

On Dec. 26, a holiday blizzard dumped more than 2 feet of heavy snow that left Brick Township, N.J., and other area municipalities reeling — motorists were stranded on roads for hours, residents took shelter in the police headquarters and a local mall, and plows wrestled with the white stuff for days afterward.

While crews did an admirable job in clearing the roadways, the work brought a hefty price tag of about $1.4 million.

Fortunately, the pain of paying for the valiant snow-fighting effort will be relieved. The severe blizzard qualifies as a weather disaster, and local officials successfully lobbied the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to recoup some of those costs.

“It won't go to the whole bill, but it's a substantial amount,” says Councilman Michael Thulen. The FEMA allowance — which is being finalized — will only cover the first two days post-event; however, officials anticipate that it will pay for as much as 75% of the cleanup costs.

Dealing with the aftermath

When snow melts, it can leave behind quite a mess — garbage strewn on rights of way, pet waste forgotten under snow drifts, yard debris cluttering gutters.

The City of Painesville, Ohio, helps residents clean up during the thaw with post-winter cleanup kits, provided by the Lake County Emergency Management Agency. The kits help residents wrangle and dispose of the yard waste left behind by the melted snow. They're available on a first come, first served basis at the city's fire department, one per household.

According to City Service Director Kevin Lynch, yard waste collected by residents and placed curbside were collected by public works crews from March 20 to April 1; after that, the city's waste contractor resumed its normal weekly yard waste pickups.

From blizzards to floods

When record-level snows melt, they can lead to serious flooding. Forward-thinking public agencies gear up for the spring thaw long before the last snowman melts.

In Grafton, Ill., officials learned their lesson after a 2008 post-winter flood hit the tourism-driven town north of St. Louis, leaving homes submerged and roads blocked. This season, the town is armed with a surplus of sandbags and other flood-fighting gear in advance of any flooding.

Minot, N.D., is no stranger to preparing for post-winter flooding conditions. This winter was as severe for the municipality as it was for much of the nation, and local commissioners already have applied for emergency funding, but area officials — having seen floods hit the area for years — are prepared for whatever conditions occur as the snow continues thawing.

“Just a process we go through every spring,” says Street Superintendent Rick Hair.

— Jenni Spinner (jspinwrites@gmail.com) is a Chicago-based freelance writer and a former editor of PUBLIC WORK.