Sunday, February 9, 2014

Battling the Elements

Update 2/12/14: I spoke with Rich Gestrich again today who advised that later today LPT will be reactivating their Blackboard system for emergency notifications…and Public Works gave him a preliminary estimate that approximately 80% of the snow removal budget for this season has been used so far, through 2/12. Obviously that does not include the storms later this week or in the future.

I have to wonder...if the Continental soldiers who wintered in Valley Forge over 200 years ago had to contend with some of the frustrations we have had to abide during the winter of 2013-2014, they may well have marched out much sooner than June 1778.

Not to make light of their struggle, but the average daily temperature so far this winter has been much colder, for much longer, and the inches of snowfall has been much higher, than what occurred that winter.*
General Washington and his officers didn’t have to worry about finding someplace to charge up their cellphones or laptops, locate the nearest ‘warming station’ without benefit of said laptops or cellphones, or sit in traffic on local highways that had yet to be plowed to try to get to Washington’s headquarters.  Their cable TV never got knocked out, leaving the troops with nothing to do but play board games or read to entertain themselves (forget hunting and gathering firewood).  And they certainly didn't have to worry about who was going to watch the kids when schools or day care was closed, at the same time many demanding bosses insisted workers show up regardless of road conditions.
Sure, over the past week we have shared some of their struggles. We tried to keep food from spoiling, and tried to heat our homes with whatever we could get our hands on. Washington’s men’s lack of modern plumbing might have been an asset, as anyone who’s anxiously worried about frozen pipes and the cost to repair them can attest.  
Of course, I’m saying all this in jest. We at least have shoes and warm clothing, and something better than a mud and wooden hut in which to shelter. But I think we can all agree that we are looking forward to spring at least as much as Washington’s forces were. And given all that, we can hopefully forgive our local government officials for any delays or hiccups encountered this week.
Methacton's school closed code
Still, we have had our local challenges. At Methacton School District, it’s been a struggle to keep the kids in school a full day, let alone a full week. Already we have had so many snow days that the district has been forced to cancel planned days off on April 16-17 and June 13, which are to make up for snow days on December 10, 2013 and January 3 and 22, 2014. This week alone, schools were closed February 3, 5 and 6 – although Skyview, Arcola and Worcester were closed on the 7th as well, due to lack of power at those facilities – so how does Methacton plan to handle all the  days off this past week?
Angela Linch, Methacton’s Director of School and Community Information, told me Friday that the district still hasn’t determined what to do about those, and wasn’t aware what effect, if any, the governor’s state of emergency declaration might have on whether those days will have to be made up.
FYI, I discovered that because Gov. Corbett has declared a state of emergency, it is possible to win a reprieve from having to have a full 180 days of school as mandated by state law if the school superintendent submits a written request for a waiver to the PA Secretary of Education. If the superintendent’s request is denied, every snow day not made up will have to be added to the end of the year or taken from scheduled vacation time, and the district has til June 30 to get all the missed days in.
The only other way around the 180 day requirement is if the state legislature enacts legislation permitting less than 180 days of school for this calendar school year, something that last happened 20 years ago. According to the PA Dept of Education, 24 P.S. Section 25-2523 of the PA education code governs emergency school closings. You can find out what they have to say about this here.
Over at the LP Township building, Township staff wrestled with their own challenges. Richard Gestrich, the Township Manager, just coming off a 3 pm update call with PECO, told me Friday he’d stayed late at the township administration building almost every night last week trying to stay on top of PECO updates and deal with other pressing storm-related urgencies. He said their biggest challenge has been trying to deal with problems presented by back-to-back storms and specifically the issues presented by numerous downed trees and electrical lines on township roads. Public Works is not equipped to remove a tree if there’s a power line across it and until PECO can deal with that, the tree stays put (Eagleville Road, anyone?). Public Works had their hands full dealing with road closures and detours, salting and plowing and the aforementioned assisting with tree removal from township roads.
And let’s not forget our police, fire and ambulance teams. I’m hoping they are enjoying some well-deserved rest this weekend as the number of accidents, falls, and other emergency calls have subsided somewhat from peaks last week. First responders and public works employees are the ones who take it on the chin, doing the impossible on next to no sleep and working very long days under very trying conditions as they keep 89+ miles of township roads as safe as possible.
As did many municipalities, LP did open the administration building briefly for use as a warming station and shared that information on the township website and via Facebook, but Gestrich noted that they closed it after noticing that not many people were taking advantage of it. He mentioned looking out the window across at the library and noticing IT was jam-packed with people using that facility for warming up and recharging their phones rather than coming to the administration building right next door.
I asked Gestrich why the Township did not use the mass emergency notification broadcast system called Blackboard that they’d used in recent years to quickly disseminate critical and timely information during natural disasters or other emergencies. The system, which residents had to sign up for and opt in by providing their cell and email information, would call your phone and/or send you an email/text with emergency information. Other than the approximate $12-15K annual cost of the system, it was free to residents. It was great in circumstances like this past week, when a lot of people at various points in time may not have the use of one or all of their electronic devices. Gestrich explained that the cost of the system was cut out of the budget this year to save money in the hopes that we could rely on the county system, which apparently has been fraught with problems.  Gestrich stated that if the County system is not fully functional within the next week or so, with all bugs worked out, LP will go back to Blackboard.
Photo LP Public Works staffers courtesy: Times Herald
 When I asked where we stand as far as resources to fight future storms (and the cost versus budget of same) Gestrich said not all invoices are in yet but he doesn’t believe we’re over budget. At last look, we were at 18% of budget for salt and brine purchases (and overtime hours) and certainly the past week jacked that up substantially, but he feels we should be ok for future storms.

A big challenge has been getting the tools to fight snow and ice: we are still owed 400 tons of salt from a salt provider, a resource obviously in high demand among all municipalities and the state of late and the weather hasn’t helped with on-time deliveries. He indicated we are frugal with what we have; we cut the mix with cinders and aggregate and still have salt in reserve…for now.
I also inquired as to whether the Township supervisors will again authorize sending a Public Works crew around to chip up the numerous fallen tree branches in residents' yards, as was done in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and other previous storms. Gestrich hasn't received any direction on that just yet, but it's immensely appreciated by residents. It's tough to get tree crews to come out even to give you a quote during normal conditions, and impossible when those resources are overwhelmed with work during storm cleanup times. Besides, the chipped wood goes right to the Township mulch pile on South Park Avenue for residents' use in the spring.
As of this writing, PECO reports less than 250 LP customers remaining without power. Presumably, school will be in session on Monday. And, there are only 38 days left til spring! This year, it can't get here fast enough.


*Weather Report at Valley Forge 1775-1782

The winter at Valley Forge was a rough one. But, a winter encampment at Morristown, New Jersey was worse. The Valley Forge Encampment was difficult because the soldiers lacked proper clothing and proper meals. There were seven winters during the Revolutionary War.
The winters could be rated on the following scale: severe, moderate and mild.

There are two excellent resources providing an account of the weather situation in the Philadelphia region during the winter of 1777-1778. One is that of Thomas Coombe, from his residence "two miles west of Philadelphia" (which would be in the city today) and that of Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, from Providence (now Trappe, approximately 10-12 miles from Valley Forge), near the Perkiomen River in Montgomery County.
The Encampment saw basically two periods of severe cold. The end of December with a low of 6 Degrees and the end of March with a low of 8 Degrees. The low in January reached 12 Degrees and February was 16 Degrees. The troops arrived at Valley Forge on the 19th of December and eight days later, the deepest single snow of the season fell, which was followed by the severest cold. They were plagued by boughts of cold, which would thaw and then refreeze. You can imagine what a muddy mess it would have been working on drills.
There were three continued snowstorms, but not of a blizzard-like quality. More moderate to heavy covering. "There was heavy snowfall" according to Dr. Muhlenberg on the 8th of February, "deeper now than we have had the whole winter," but was washed away by a heavy rainfall within the next 2 to 3 days. The heavy snowfall of the 8th, compounded by the heavy rainfall brought some flooding conditions...which made roads impassable.
Between the cold and freezing temperatures, there were even some above average warm temperatures during the encampment when some thaws set in. These included some days around Christmas and then approximately three periods in January lasting for several days at a time.
Courtesy National Center for the American Revolution/Valley Forge Historical Society