Blizzard Keeps D.C. Adrift in Problems


As the Eastern Seaboard dug its way out from this week's blizzard Wednesday, one place was noticeably lagging behind: the District of Columbia. And the question most on the lips of residents here: Why can't this city get its roads cleared?

The question was more than idle curiosity because unplowed streets prevented the federal government from reopening again Wednesday, when skies were mostly sunny in the nation's capital. One explanation was offered by Linda Grant, a sleep-deprived but still good-humored spokeswoman for the District of Columbia's Department of Public Works.

"Because we're Washington, D.C., and not Buffalo," she said. "We expect a certain level of storm here--we even practice for it."

That level typically does not exceed 17 inches of snow during a six-month period that begins in October. "We've had more than that in three days," she said.

Mayor Marion Barry defended his city's performance in dealing with the storm's aftermath, saying that "we've done a herculean job of staying abreast of the storm's requirements," given Washington's many budgetary limits.

Barry was referring to restrictions on what the city can spend to deal with weather-related problems. Tottering on the edge of bankruptcy, the city must live within tough spending constraints imposed by a financial management team.

One rule prohibits any city department from spending more than 25% of its annual budget during a quarter. This applies to the public works department too.

"We don't see too much snow here in June or August," Grant said, adding that her department has asked for an exemption from that rule. "We've had our hands tied. When your hands are tied behind your back, you can't defend yourself."

The district has an annual snow budget of $2.1 million, and Grant estimated that this storm alone would cost the city about $1.1 million.

The spending controls "have hampered our ability to respond," she said. "We need to buy salt; we need to have parts to repair equipment and vehicles, but we are unable to purchase all that we need. Full strength would be 101 vehicles equipped to spread salt and to plow. Because of equipment failures, we have half that amount."

But roads were not much better in suburban Maryland and Virginia just outside Washington, where two-thirds of federal workers live.

"The streets downtown are passable, but if they were full of normal traffic, they would have been congested," said Johnny Allem, director of communications for the District of Columbia. "We were able to get in a good day's work today with the federal government closed."

Meanwhile, conditions improved somewhat throughout the East as airports opened and snowplows cleared major thoroughfares. Airport delays, however, remained too numerous to count, and commuters inched along in cars and waited in frustration as trains already jammed full were unable to pick them up.

About 85 deaths were blamed on the storm, mostly traffic fatalities and heart attacks brought on by shoveling snow.

The federal government said that it plans to open today, clean streets or not, three weeks after its partial shutdown, because of the budget squabble between President Clinton and congressional Republicans, and three days after the massive storm.

"Federal employees know what they're up against when they walk through those doors tomorrow," said Janice Lachance of the Office of Personnel Management. "The catch-up process is going to take awhile. For the most part, we're hearing that they're anxious to get back to work."

But as moods began to brighten with the sunshine, there was trouble on the horizon. Another storm, much like last weekend's, is forecast to move into the area tonight and Friday.

The National Weather Service said the area could get at least 4 inches of new snow, and perhaps as much as 16 inches, compounded by sleet and freezing rain, with clearing on Saturday. "This will be a very significant and possibly dangerous one," one Weather Service official said.

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