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Region's snow job continues

It could have been much, much worse. The first weekday after the second biggest snowstorm in the region's history was not so much chaotic as simply inconvenient.

Not snow sweet are streets that are too narrow for plows. Residents of Cantrell Street in South Phila. could find it hard to even drive slowly.
Not snow sweet are streets that are too narrow for plows. Residents of Cantrell Street in South Phila. could find it hard to even drive slowly.Read moreSHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer

It could have been much, much worse.

The first weekday after the second biggest snowstorm in the region's history was not so much chaotic as simply inconvenient.

Slush abounded, sidewalks were slippery, and many motorists were still digging out their plowed-in vehicles. But for the determined, it was possible to get to work, to school, or to fit in some last-minute shopping.

Which is not at all bad, considering that the 22.5 inches of snow that piled up at Philadelphia International Airport Saturday and Sunday was more than the city averages in a winter's worth of storms.

The suburbs, for the most part, were in good shape. Many towns got less snow than the city, and others burned through overtime budgets to clear the mess away quickly.

In Philadelphia, there were still plenty of unplowed side streets yesterday, and many more miles of roadway that were barely passable. But the major streets and many secondary roads were fairly clear, while city highways and the biggest thoroughfares were almost entirely snow-free.

Philadelphia public and parochial schools are scheduled to reopen at their normal times today, while most suburban schools were open yesterday. City trash pickup is also slated to resume today, and Nutter administration officials say they will plow every road in Philadelphia before calling it quits on storm cleanup.

"To be in this sort of shape less than 48 hours after the snow stopped, it's almost a miracle," said Philadelphia Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson.

Following the blizzard of 1996, when 30.7 inches fell, city schools were closed for more than a week. Trash collection stalled for a week and a half.

"I think people have to remember, this was the second largest storm in history, so all things considered, it seems to me like they did a nice job," said former Managing Director Phil Goldsmith, who is often critical of Mayor Nutter.

The timing of the 2009 storm helped cleanup efforts. Many residents spent Sunday digging out, and the lack of traffic gave plows time to clear many streets before the Monday rush.

At the peak of its weekend snow-clearing operation, the City of Philadelphia had 600 employees plowing and salting city roads, with about 350 vehicles joining in the effort, Tolson said. The city estimated that 2,460 of the city's 2,595 miles of roadways had been plowed. Tolson, though, was quick to say that "plowed" does not mean pristine.

Given the size of the storm, and the lack of open space on dense city blocks, one of the biggest problems is that there is simply no good place to pile up the snow. Unlike in 1996, the city is not loading up trucks and dumping the snow into the Schuylkill, Tolson said, partly out of environmental concerns, and partly because such efforts take away time that could be spent plowing.

Residents can help matters, she said, by not shoveling snow back into the street when digging out their cars. Tolson instead suggested that they pile the snow in front or in back of their vehicles, though that is bound to mean a sharp reduction in parking space until the snow melts.

Tolson also asked residents not to park too close to corners or too far from the curb. The city's wide plows have been unable to go down some smaller streets, she said, because of improperly parked cars.

If city plows do come, it will surprise the residents of Cantrell Street, near Third Street and Snyder Avenue in South Philadelphia, where snow was still two feet deep yesterday afternoon. Residents there said they were long accustomed to digging themselves out after storms.

Around the corner from Cantrell, on Third Street, conditions were better. Annmarie Ervin, who has lived in the area most of her life, said the city could do a better job of plowing side streets, but said that has been true for as long as she can remember.

She and another area resident said this storm was not as bad as in 1996, when people were snowed in for days. "Ninety-six was much worse," said Charlie Stinsman. "I think any storm is what you make of it. It's not that bad."

In the hills of Manayunk, residents were not as upbeat. With its steep, narrow roads, few sections of town fare as badly in a storm - or get as little city attention - as Manayunk.

In the 100 block of Jamestown Street, the narrow roadway was choked with about eight inches of snow as Rosemarie Meszaros, a 50-year resident, toiled with a shovel to free her car from the grip of snow and ice.

Asked if the street had been plowed, Meszaros shook her head and said, "I haven't seen them at all. I'm surprised half the people got their cars off the street."

Meszaros said that in previous years, the city dispatched small trucks equipped with plows to the area to handle the tight, steep streets. "They were doing good, they could get up and down the streets," Meszaros said. "But in the last two years, they haven't been here."

Still, she said, 1996 was "a lot worse."

A few blocks away, the city was at work on one of those oft-neglected side streets. At East Street near Manor Street, Colleen Trainor watched as a city worker used a Bobcat mini front-end loader to scoop up the snow.

Trainor lamented the street's not being plowed earlier.

"The past two days were awful," Trainor said. "We couldn't get up the street. There was no way to drive up East. Today was the first day I could get my truck out."

Complaints are inevitable after a big storm, but the Nutter administration clearly considered its response to have been outstanding.

"Overall, when you think about what this storm represented . . . our folks have done an incredible job under incredible circumstances," Nutter said.

The storm is bound to cost the city a small fortune, given the extensive use of overtime. But Tolson said she was too focused on cleanup to estimate how much had been spent, and Nutter likewise shrugged off the cost.

"These events are what they are," Nutter said. "We're here in Philadelphia, we get snow all the time - maybe not this much - but we'll deal with it."

Suburban cities and towns burned through overtime budgets responding to the storm as well.

In Cherry Hill, township employees worked 36 hours straight over the weekend to plow, sand, and salt roads, at a cost to taxpayers of over $200,000 in overtime and other expenses, said Mayor Bernie Platt.

In Medford, a crew of two dozen worked in staggered shifts around the clock beginning 5 a.m. Saturday, according to Township Manager Mike Achey.

Costs associated with the storm aren't yet available, Achey said, "but it's not going to be cheap, I can tell you that. It's a big storm."

The Pennsylvania suburbs weathered the storm more easily, as snowfall was somewhat lighter to the west of Philadelphia. Officials in Chester, Bucks, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties reported fender-benders but few major incidents.

"For us, it was minor. PennDot and the road crews did an excellent job," said Bucks County Emergency Services Director John Dougherty. "Even our accident totals were down from what they usually are. I think people took our advice and stayed home."

There was at least one storm-related fatality Sunday in Bucks County. State police reported that at 1 a.m., an Arctic Cat snowmobile traveling on Krammes Road in Milford Township left the road and struck a tree. The driver, Daniel Serfass, 28, was taken to St. Luke's Hospital in Quakertown, where he died of his injuries.

His passenger, 23-year-old Kimberly Trusty, was taken to St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa., for evaluation, and a nursing supervisor said she had been discharged. Both had been wearing helmets, police said.