While American drivers enjoyed a relatively mild winter last season, this time around the Farmers’ Almanac is predicting a heavier than average snowfall for much of the country and adequate preparation for snow removal will be key to avoiding catastrophe.
Residents of Seattle and many other cities certainly hope they don’t have a repeat of previous snowstorms which were met by unprepared officials and left hundreds of thousands of residents stranded, sometimes for days and with catastrophic results. The 2008 Seattle snowstorm turned hilly city streets into skating rinks as cars – with wheels spinning on ice – crashed into parked vehicles.
In 2010, New York City was buried under two feet of snow with motorists forced to abandon their stuck vehicles in the streets, blocking snow plows and emergency vehicles. Side streets were not cleared for days. In 2009, Chicago residents dealt with days of ice covered streets because the city had cut the snow removal budget. In 2010, a 54-inch snowfall shut down the Washington, D.C. area including the federal government for an unprecedented four consecutive days.
Winter snowstorms are not merely an inconvenience; they carry real cost in both financial and personal terms. According to the Federal Highway Administration, more than 116,000 Americans are injured and 1,300 killed every year on snowy or icy roads. During New York City’s 2010 snowstorm, more than 1,400 emergency calls to 911 went unanswered or suffered a significantly delayed response resulting in several avoidable deaths. More than 500 public buses ended up stuck in the snow and more than 200 flights were canceled in area airports.
The American Highway Users Alliance estimates that snowstorms cost states as much as $700 million per day in lost economic activity if roads become impassable. George Mason University economist Stephen S. Fuller told the Washington Post in 2010 he estimated that the total output for the DC area was more than $1.2 billion daily, a significant portion of which was lost when roads are shut down by snow. The Office of Personnel Management also told the Post that it costs the federal government $100 million per day to shut down.
In order to avoid these winter headaches, cities are increasingly preparing with emergency snow removal plans that include the one key ingredient in melting road ice; salt. Indeed, Seattle had enacted a no-salt policy prior to the 2008 snowstorm and as a result has gone back to using salt. When snowstorms struck again the following year Seattle was ready. Road crews were able to apply salt and brine to roads before, during and after the snow, helping to keep highways safe, traffic moving and cash registers humming.
Cliff Mass, a University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences and a renowned Seattle weather prognosticator, recommends pre-treating roads with salt. “Just a little bit of salt can keep the mixture from freezing,” says Mass. “Salt makes a big difference with our temperatures and not just before the snow, but after it falls, to prevent icing.”
According to Morton Satin, the Salt Institute’s vice president of science and research, there aren’t viable alternatives to salt. “Abrasives don’t melt snow and ice. They can increase traction, but in order to do so they must remain between the tire and the ice, which is not possible in the presence of significant traffic. As a result, abrasives must be used in large quantities and applied frequently, making them far more expensive than salt in terms of material and manpower,” he says.
Salt is an economical strategic resource in winter, and local governments should keep at least a year’s supply on hand to ensure lives and commerce are protected. To learn more about winter preparedness visit safewinterroads.org.