Inside Philadelphia's Snow-Emergency Response

Philadelphia has one of the nation's best snow-response efforts. Mayor Michael Nutter explains how it all goes down.
by | January 27, 2011
 

Philadelphia has one of the best snow-response teams in the country. But even a city that's used to snowfall can be caught off-guard. On Wednesday, officials were bracing for a long, cold night, with forecasters calling for eight inches of white stuff to blanket the city. They were shocked when nearly twice that was dumped on the City of Brotherly Love.

Governing spoke with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter this morning about how his city handles the snow. The two most important things to keep in mind, according to Nutter? Preparation and communication.

On Tuesday, the day before the storm, hundreds of trucks laid a salty brine solution on city roads that served to minimize icing. The city told citizens ahead of time about those vehicles so they wouldn't be confused. "The only way to fight a storm is to prepare for what's coming," Nutter says.

Around 11 a.m. Wednesday, before the snow hit, the city held a joint press conference with other government bodies so citizens would get all the relevant information they needed at once. Officials from the school district let people know about the early school closures, and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority updated residents on the status of their routes. The city alerted residents that at 7 p.m. Wednesday it would declare a snow emergency, which requires people to move parked cars off of certain streets so that snow plows can pass through. Nutter hoped the early warning would give people plenty of time to prepare.

The city also promoted a hotline that citizens could call if they saw residents, especially the homeless, stuck outside in the cold and snow. The city issued a "code blue," which means it stepped up its efforts to aggressively — but nicely, Nutter says — move the homeless off the streets and into shelters to avoid hypothermia.

All that info was repeated in the city's various social media outlets. "We give every piece of information we have," Nutter says. "The key is letting them know and letting them know early."

By Wednesday afternoon, the city's trash trucks had stopped picking up refuse and recycling and were being outfitted for snow removal. Drivers got rest before a busy night. "We put a plow on the front, chains on the tires, and it's time to rock and roll," Nutter says.

Eventually, 500 trucks and 700 employees worked in grueling, sometimes 24-hour shifts, in an effort to clear the city's 3,000 miles of streets of snow and ice. They'll continue through this evening. "Basically ... if you've got a truck and we can put a plow on it, you're going to be doing snow duty. That's kind of our motto," Nutter says. "Our folks are snow fighters. This is what they do. They take it as a point of personal pride."

Throughout the storm, 18 different agencies had representatives at an emergency operations center located at the city's fire administration building, keeping abreast of the city's response.

Nutter, who was elected mayor of Philadelphia 2007, says that serving more than 14 years as a councilmember from a hilly area of the city that often received heavy snowfall helped him recognize the importance of a proper response and gave him experience seeing the types of issues that must be addressed during and after snowfall. Now, the city has a set pattern of steps it takes to prepare and respond to snow, all based on the time it's projected to hit, Nutter says.

Later this afternoon, city employees will start making the rounds to determine whether residents have shoveled the walkways in front of their homes. If they haven't, they'll be issued a fine. "It's about public safety," Nutter says. "If they can't walk on the sidewalk, they have to walk on the street."

Still, there have been hiccups, and the snow has caused problems despite the city's preparation. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that some residents spent the night in buses after they got stranded late Wednesday. While some got out found other ways home, those who lived far away and lacked other means of transportation slept inside the buses for warmth.

The newspaper also says the morning rush hour today was especially slow, and plows were blocked by stranded vehicles in some place. Nutter says the city will continue to address problems due to snow and ice. "We don't stop until the job is done," Nutter says.

As of noon, all the city's major streets have been plowed at least once, says Desiree Peterkin Bell, the mayor's communications director. In some cases, that hasn't been enough to completely clear the roads, and additional passes are needed. About 80 percent of streets have had snow and ice "taken down as much as a plow can," she says, and traffic and sun will have to do the rest of the work.

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