Planning eases winter storm effects

The first snow storm of the season - and the area's first Christmas snow since 1947 - is behind us, but winter's just begun.

For some Concord city employees that means more overtime pay when bad weather strikes, but for taxpayers the costs behind cleanup efforts are as uncertain as the weather itself. The winter blast was a hit-or-miss affair between area meteorologists throughout the week leading up to the storm, and transportation director Joe Wilson said it's often a Catch-22.

"The weather almost always seems to follow the geography of I-85 and is very unpredictable," he said. "The fact that it was a 60 percent chance of precipitation and the fact that it was going to be on a Saturday, we felt the effort was worth it to prevent having to mobilize and bring everybody in on the holiday."

The city errs on the side of caution in hopes to save money and time throughout the cleanup. If the city prepares and nothing happens, it costs taxpayers money. If officials do nothing and the storm comes, it costs significantly more, said Wilson.

About 35 employees in the city's streets and stormwater departments helped manage the once-in-a-generation storm event. They also help with other inclement weather throughout the year.

Snow began to fall on Christmas night and accumulated to 4-5 inches by noon the next day.

"This was actually a pretty good storm," said Randy Shue, the city's utility service coordinator and longtime Concord resident. "The snow got off the road fast. (The brine) kept the snow from sticking to our bare pavement roads for the first few hours and, therefore, we didn't have to put as much salt down as quickly. If we hadn't done that, then we would have had to bring the crews in earlier than we did. ... This storm was a little different because it fell on Christmas."

Preparations began Dec. 23 as crews pre-treated 175 miles of the city's designated "bare pavement routes," and known trouble spots, with 20,000 gallons of brine. Workers were called in at 9 p.m. Christmas night, and crews didn't finish until 6 a.m. Dec. 27, a scheduled holiday for city workers.

Most employees who were involved averaged 20 hours of overtime. The city plans its budget for materials like salt and sand and overtime pay through separate line items in the annual budget.

Officials said cleaning the trucks and preparing the equipment and brine for the next possible storm would end early this week.

Within five hours, workers distributed the brine mixture to top-priority routes including Poplar Tent Road, George W. Liles Parkway, Warren C. Coleman Boulevard and parts of N.C. 73 and N.C. 3 within city limits. These roadways are maintained by N.C. Department of Transportation but are not the state's top priority. The state maintains U.S. 29, N.C. 49 and Interstate 85 as the area's priority roads.

Brine, a solution of salt and water, keeps ice from bonding to the pavement. The proactive, cost-saving approach reduces the impact of frozen precipitation and helps expedite cleanup..

During an average storm, about 200 tons of salt are needed, said officials. At $100 per ton, it costs about $20,000 to cover the city's bare-pavement routes. The brine costs 12 cents per gallon, or about $2,400 for the 20,000 gallons used to pre-treat Concord's priority roads. Both costs do not include employee labor.

Five trucks distributed salt Christmas night. From 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Dec. 26, 13 plows operated throughout the city. A handful of trucks remained on the streets until 6 a.m. Dec. 27, checking bare pavement routes and area neighborhoods.

The city called in members of its fleet services division to help with a flat tire and a couple of blown fuses, but faced no major problems.

The city also makes its own brine and supplies about 2,000 gallons total to Mount Pleasant and Huntersville. Officials say their stock of brine is the largest supply in the area, next to Charlotte's and the N.C. Department of Transportation's.

Jackson Joseph, 38, has been a city employee for three months. He's lived in Concord since 1995 after he moved to the states from Haiti in 1988. The public service worker's primary jobs are working with the city's concrete and street repairs crews. He helped make the brine at the city's Alfred M. Brown Operations Center on U.S. 601 in Concord. This was his first winter storm as a city employee.

"It's about seeing the fruit of our labor," he said. "It's about seeing that you do something good for someone. And I like helping out a city that helped me out. Without (our effort), most people wouldn't be able to go to work, which helps the economy, so it's a win-win for me."