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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Thirty years later, state now ready for ‘monster’ blizzard


By Gregory B. Hladky
Capitol Bureau Chief
HARTFORD
— State and local officials say Connecticut is far better prepared now to face a monster blizzard than it was 30 years ago today, Feb. 6 1978, and reforms enacted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks are partly responsible.
The state now regularly stages disaster response exercises covering everything from terrorist acts to how to handle another massive storm like the one that dropped up to 55 inches of snow, as illustrated in the above photo, which depicts a Feburary 1978 scene in Hamden.
Wayne E. Sandford, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said 9/11 exposed many flaws in the way state and local agencies communicated and cooperated in a crisis situation.
“Nine-11 forced everyone to start working together who didn’t work together before,” said Sandford.
Guilford First Selectman Carl A. Balestracci agreed, saying, “Our departments are much better organized since all the turmoil after 9/11.”
Sandford said communications between state and local officials dramatically improved, as have weather forecasting techniques.
“On Nov. 20, (2007), we actually simulated a major blizzard striking the state,” Sandford said.
Sandford said that exerciselasted nearly seven hours and involved all state agencies that would be needed in a major blizzard emergency. Top state commissioners were called in and met with Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who quizzed them about what the state’s action should be under different scenarios.
The exercise involved working with Pennsylvania officials, who last March had to shut down Interstate 80 there because of a massive snowstorm.
In the 1978 blizzard, the late Gov. Ella T. Grasso ordered all major highways closed except for emergency traffic, and Connecticut was virtually at a standstill for three days.
“We are confident that we are prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws at us,” said Judd Everhart, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
Everhart said the DOT “works much smarter than it did 30 years ago, thanks to increased and better use of technology.”
One example of technology improvements, Everhart said, are scores of remote highway cameras the DOT has at highway locations around the state that allow the agency to monitor traffic conditions.
The DOT also has temperature sensors embedded in pavement at several places in Connecticut to provide accurate reading on road conditions.
The state also now “treats major roads with a salt brine mixture” in advance of predicted storms to help minimize snow and ice accumulation, Everhart said. Once snow or sleet begins to fall, the DOT spreads a mixture of calcium and chloride with road salt to keep precipitation from freezing once it hits the road surface and to activate the salt more quickly.
Sand — the major road treatment in 1978 — is rarely used today, he said.
But the big issue in a major blizzard would be the state’s ability to clear away rapidly accumulating snow.
The DOT has 623 state trucks, 1,400 maintenance-related employees it can call out in the event of a major storm and another 170-plus private contractors that are available if needed.
A “full call out” by the state of trucks and employees to respond to a major snowstorm costs about $80,000 per hour, Everhart said. The state budget allocates about $27 million a year for snow removal.
Another improvement since 1978 is interstate cooperation in the event of a blizzard.
Sandford said Connecticut is now part of an “Interstate 95 Coalition” of states along the Eastern Seaboard that allows officials to discuss rerouting of traffic in the event one state shuts down its highways. If Connecticut was contemplating closing major highways, it could contact officials as far away as Virginia to notify them in advance so that warnings could be posted for truckers and other interstate travelers.
Forecasting storms has become far more accurate in the past three decades, Sandford said. State officials now conduct conference calls that “start two or three days ahead” of a storm’s arrival in Connecticut, he said.
Balestracci said the improvements in local planning and technology since the 1978 storm hit also are remarkable.
Guilford now has emergency evacuation facilities that have been set up and actually used on one occasion, among other improvements.
“Our Public Works Department has increased a great deal since 1978,” the first selectman said. “We have more personnel and more equipment.”BGuilford also now has a “reverse calling system” that can target neighborhoods and individual streets with automatic warning calls in the event of an emergency or an evacuation order.alestracci warned that the increased population in Guilford and along the rest of Connecticut’s shoreline means some storm-vulnerable areas are far more built up than they were 30 years ago.
“But we’re going to be better able to handle the critical areas we know exist,” he added.
Gegory B. Hladky can be contacted at ghladky@nhregister.com or (860) 524-0719.

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