Amid cleanup complaints, Howard officials, residents face more plowing, frustration

Heavy, blowing snow quickly covered the Howard County streets that prompted complaints about the clean-up after last weekend's blizzard, but now exhausted county officials and workers face more days of plowing, digging and frustration.

Angela Beltram's observation about county snow-clearing efforts on her street off St. John's Lane in Ellicott City resonates with lots of Howard County residents after every major snowstorm.

"All I know is, our street is one of the last" to be plowed, Beltram said, though she hadn't fully explored the neighborhood. She paid $200 to a landscaping crew with a snow-blower to clean off her driveway. County officials said Beltram's belief is a common one after a heavy storm, except that of course, everyone can't be last.

Howard Shyu, who lives on Kathleen Court in Hickory Ridge, and Adil E. Shamoo, who lives with his wife Bonnie Bricker in one of five homes on a circle at the end of Shadow Lane in the same area, said county plows didn't reach their homes until Tuesday morning, though Shamoo said the rest of Shadow Lane was plowed late on Saturday. Bricker said a construction bulldozer came Tuesday to deal with the heavy drifts, followed by a plow. This is the second time, she said, since the December storm, that the circle was not done with the rest of the street.

Shyu was grateful, finally, for the help.

"Thank God we can now go out," Shyu e-mailed a reporter. "Overall, I think the county effort is good."

But David Marc of Elkridge complained bitterly in a series of e-mails that the county should have more on-call contracts for private heavy construction equipment to handle major snowfalls.

"Elkridge was the epicenter of the storm; it made the national news. Yet, while I was out plowing neighbors driveways on the sunny Sunday we had, I did not see much action from the county, at least in old Elkridge," he said. Marc, a retired Baltimore City transportation worker, said he owns a front end loader and was helping relatives and neighbors on Sunday. The side streets off Old Washington Boulevard were plowed on Monday, officials and other residents said.

Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, was more understanding, though he was frustrated early Monday too, since he could see traffic moving freely on U.S. 1 from his own house, but he couldn't get out of his street.

"I'm willing to live with that," he said, knowing the county was doing all it can.

Kevin Doyle, a past president of GECA, was happy plows reached his street at 6:30 p.m. Monday night.

"In a lot of ways, I think it's understandable," he said, adding that this storm produced the slowest county response.

County officials have used the social networking Web site Facebook to inform residents and to receive comments. County executive Ken Ulman also used the site to appeal for volunteers to help shovel sidewalks for elderly or disabled residents. He takes the complaints to heart, he said, and was spending part of Tuesday driving around with Public Works director James Irvin, checking on individual complaints.

"If anybody's frustrated, it's me," but there are good reasons the snow removal has taken longer, he said. For example, conditions were so bad on I-95 over the weekend that scores of big trucks pulled off heading for the Truckers Inn in Jessup. Finding no room to park, they lined public roads, which occupied county equipment for hours, pulling big rigs out one by one.

Downed power lines, poorly placed parked cars and medical emergencies, all require help from county equipment. Operators of some private machinery aren't as familiar with county plow routes and don't have electronic location devices, so their work doesn't appear on the county's unique Snow Tracker site. The site shows residents where each plow is located and which streets have been salted and/or plowed.

But "if that's your street" that hasn't been plowed, "you're going to be frustrated. I understand it," Ulman said.

Irvin said the county does have contracts for private heavy equipment, but tries to limit the annual expense, since the need comes just once every 5 or 10 years. With conditions so severe this time, county officials scrambled to hire every available piece of equipment.

"Contracts don't come for free," Irvin pointed out. "It's a balancing question." No one could have anticipated months ago the severity and depth of this winter's repeated storms.

County employees certainly make mistakes, he said, but the county has divided all the streets up into routes. "But stuff happens," Irvin said.

Residents often don't know why a plow left a section undone. The truck might need gas, the plow might break, a parked car might block the way, or a plow might be called to help an ambulance, fire truck or police vehicle, which happened frequently at the height of the storm Saturday and Sunday. The truck drivers also may need rest. Irvin said the county provides cots and food at highway shops and tries to rest the 130 drivers periodically for 4 or 5 hours between shifts. Many returned home Monday night to rest up for the Tuesday night/Wednesday storm.

Monday, he said, the county used privately owned construction equipment to scrape big piles of snow from the sides of Gateway Drive, widening the road to full width so the thousands of workers there could get through to their jobs.

Former County Executive James N. Robey didn't use Facebook, but said his wife Janet often fielded complaints at home, particularly during the 2003 28-inch blizzard.

"I understand the frustration of folks," said Robey, who is now a state senator. Back then, the Robeys lived in a detached home in a development off U.S. 40, and people would assume his street was always done first. It wasn't. he said.

"I was the last one to be done," he said, echoing Beltram's comment. "All the circles and cul-de-sacs were the last to be done," he said, because they affected the fewest people. The county clears the largest roads first and then secondary roads residential streets and finally circles and cul-de-sacs, he said.

Robey said he rarely became angry, he said, but he wouldn't allow people to become abusive, either.

"I hung up on a few when they cursed at me," he said. "People are not themselves in these situations."

Monday morning, Howard County Councilman Greg Fox saw how difficult seemingly routine operations could be as he awaited county snowplows on his Fulton street. County firefighters responded to a routine medical distress call on his street south of Route 216 Monday morning, but the county plow leading the emergency equipment broke down. Four firefighters aided by six fire recruits with shovels waded through hip-deep drifts to a house at the far end of the block. A larger vehicle was later able to power up the street, he said, followed shortly by a second county plow that cleared the street.

"I think that they're doing everything that they can," said Fox, the council's only Republican. "There are only so many places you can put the snow. There's just a certain reality," he said. Many residents also complimented the county's effort.

"I'm amazed that so many roads are cleared to be passable!" Nellie Arrington e-mailed county council chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat. "It sounds like Howard County is doing a great job to me," added Ginger Rafferty Segala.

Terry Beckman, another resident, felt the same way.

"The snow plow crews in Howard County have done a fantastic job on all the snow we've had this winter. We are so lucky!" she messaged Watson on Facebook. The driver that cleared her block "looked so cool," wearing sunglasses and sporting a smile and a wave.