WAFF 48 Investigates: The cost of a winter storm - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

WAFF 48 Investigates: The cost of a winter storm

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The snow was enough cripple entire cities. The dozens of closed roads and accidents added up to long hours for emergency responders. The snow was enough cripple entire cities. The dozens of closed roads and accidents added up to long hours for emergency responders.
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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -

You can't control Mother Nature, but you can control how much money is spent in the aftermath of a winter storm. Last week, city, county and state leaders spent more than $500,000 in North Alabama alone.

We wanted to break down those costs and investigate whether there's a more efficient way to do business.

The snow was enough cripple entire cities. The dozens of closed roads and accidents added up to long hours for emergency responders.

"It becomes a financial issue as far as overtime," said Chief of Operations for HEMSI, Don Webster.

The overtime equates to plenty of your tax dollars. $120,000 was spent in the city of Huntsville alone, according to city leaders. That includes everything from labor to equipment and materials like salt and sand used on the roads.

So what about using your tax dollars for larger equipment like a snow plow?

We asked Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, "Would it be more cost effective to buy a bigger piece of equipment and in turn reduce labor costs?"

"Well our snow is so seldom here that we use our scrapers," said Mayor Battle.

Huntsville has just two scrapers (also referred to as a grader.) Along with the snow and ice, those scrapers scraped off hundreds of street reflectors. The reflectors each cost about $5, not including the labor to re-install them.

We did some research and found that the average cost of a plow attachment for a pickup costs less than $2,000.  Unlike the scrapers Huntsville currently uses, many plows are guaranteed not to leave problems in their wake.

By our math, every 300 reflectors not scraped up would more than pay for a plow attachment. The more plows, the quicker the roads are back open.

Huntsville already has two of the plow attachments, so again we wanted to know, why not get more?

We went straight to the man in charge of the heavy equipment, Public Works Director Terry Hatfield to ask about the logic of using scrapers. He says the scrapers are one of the only pieces of equipment the city has to remove ice.

When we showed Hatfield our math, he agrees that it all adds up. He said department engineers are looking into the costs and will consider purchasing more of the plows attachments.

We wanted to take this story a step further. After all, your tax dollars also pay for state roads. I found the price tag is much higher for the Department of Transportation (DOT.)

To cover just over 1,600 miles of highways and interstates during the snow event, it cost north of $500,000.

"It takes a lot of money to run a business, and this is basically the business of keeping our roads and streets safe for the motoring public," said DOT Division Engineer Johnny Harris.

Harris said it doesn't take much to go over the allotted snow fund of $434,000, which means the state is forced to reach in other pockets.

"If you spend your money on removing snow and ice, that's just a dollar you can't repair a guardrail with or place a new sign someplace," he said.

But Harris, just like city leaders, said dollars have to come into play. He said events like this are so infrequent that it's simply not worth the cost of larger equipment.

"Don't need to put that money into equipment that we know we aren't going to get a whole lot of use out of on a regular basis," said Harris.

So that begs the question what is a "regular basis?" According to NOAA, in the last 10 years, North Alabama has had about two dozen snow events

The costs don't go away once the snow melts. Snow weakens the quality of the roads and requires streets to need additional maintenance sooner.

Huntsville utilities also incurred snow related costs. The last round of winter weather forced the purchase of 10 new power poles, and a lot of overtime for utility workers, equaling $128,000.

Of course all of the totals don't include lost wages for workers who couldn't get to work because of unplowed roads or lost revenue for businesses that couldn't open because of unplowed roads.

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