PITTSFIELD — A long-awaited report on how the city handled a Christmas holiday snowstorm is now in. Cue the debate over its findings.
City councilors received the report, from the city’s commissioner of public services and utilities, as part of the packet for their Tuesday meeting.
In a nearly 20-page report, Ricardo Morales finds that while a CodeRED call to residents should have been made, his crews did everything in their power to make city streets drivable. The weekend saw dozens of crashes, as drivers slid on ice- and snow-packed streets.
“After evaluating the operations and work done on the roads during that time, I have come to the conclusion that our difficulties were not caused by our lack of response,” Morales writes. “Despite our best efforts during and following the storm, I recognize that our best practices were overwhelmed by a number of storm related factors and the types of materials currently used to treat the roads during storm events.”
On Tuesday, Morales will come before the City Council and public to present his findings. Councilors have been eager to figure out what went wrong.
A preemptive petition by councilor Charles Kronick to shut down additional spending on magnesium chloride — a chemical used to treat icy roads — was voted down last week by the majority of the council. Councilors said they needed to see Morales’ report before drawing conclusions on what happened.
The conclusions Morales presents are that snow totals were higher, temperatures were lower and visibility was worse than forecast. The combination of these factors added difficulty to the city’s snow-removal operations.
Even so, Morales writes that when snow totals started coming in higher than expected, the city should have issued a CodeRED about road and weather conditions.
Morales said he spoke with the Pittsfield Police Department about the number of reported accidents during the storm and in the days after. His report shows that of the 43 collision reports — accidents that included minor property damage — a little more than half occurred in the first 10 to 24 hours after the storm struck Dec. 23.
Morales’ reports considers different staffing or contractor assignments the city could have considered. But his recommendations come down to additional equipment, material and partnerships to prevent the long-lasting, hard-packed snow from piling up again.
Morales proposes, in the short term, adding tanks to four of the city's six “snow fighters” — snow plows with wings and spreaders. These tanks would allow plow drivers to mix and spread magnesium chloride treated rock salt as the temperature and weather conditions change throughout their shifts.
The one-time cost would come to $32,000 for retrofitting the plows and would increase the material costs associated with snow treatment by 33 percent, according to Morales.
“There are two things in common along all roadways that had minimal if any hard pack snow or ice, the use of magnesium chloride (Mag) and how quickly it can be spread on the roadway,” Morales reports. The commissioner said he recognizes adding magnesium chloride into the regular rotation of the city’s snow response will bring a cost increase.
“However, the burden of trying to execute the optimal cost effective effort for any given storm event can have a negative impact on road conditions,” he writes.
Longer term, the commissioner recommends the city purchase two new snow fighters to replace aging vehicles in the fleet and that the city start a discussion with MassDOT about closing the gap in the state’s plowing responsibilities.
The state handles plowing for numbered routes in the city, until the roads cross through downtown.
Morales writes that he’d like to encourage the state to consider taking on some 25 lane miles on these roads so people driving the main thoroughfares don’t have to deal with a sudden change in road conditions, as they pass the boundary between state and city treatment styles.
Inside three days of plowing
The report includes an hour-by-hour look at what city crews were doing in the days leading up to and following the storm.
The commissioner said that for several days before the storm, the state’s emergency management agency and the National Weather Service were predicting 2 inches of snowfall over the course of three hours in the evening of Dec. 23.
With this forecast in mind the department made the call that this was an “all hands on deck situation” instead of the typical response, which would have divided the plowing effort into 12-hour shifts. Morales writes in the report that this decision was made to “have more snowfighters (truck with plow, wing and spreader) on the road to tackle the quick freeze.”
The commissioner reports that because the forecast called for 2 inches or less of snow, the storm didn’t meet the city’s protocol for issuing a snow emergency. City officials typically only declare a snow emergency and alert residents to parking changes if they expect a storm to bring at least 4 inches of snow.
The weather forecast as late as the morning of Dec. 23 was calling for the same conditions — with a less than 10 percent possibility that the city would see more than 4 inches of snow.
The majority of the plowing crew reported to work by 2 p.m. that day to watch for the switch from rain to snow. When the rain transitioned to snow around 4 p.m, the city had eight plows with salt spreaders out on the roads. The city plows spread rock salt over the main city roads and contractors were called to spread salt on neighborhood streets.
The forecasted 2 inches of snow fell quickly, according to weather records, becoming 4 inches and then another 3 inches later that evening. “This was far from the forecasted weather DPW prepared for,” Morales writes in his report.
The following day, crews returned for a second attempt at the snow — this time adding calcium chloride to the sand and rock salt they had been spreading and increasing the melting of the now hard-pack snow.
“As temperatures remained in the single digits, all material placed during the preceding 8 hours was rendered ineffective and contractors were called to respond to specific locations,” Morales wrote.
On Christmas morning, six city plows were back on the streets working in rotations from 7 a.m. until midnight to spread nearly 600 pounds of mix per mile on the main city streets. Still facing an uphill battle, the city reached out to Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency for help.
According to Morales, the state departments told city staff that “the best tool at the moment was already being used by Pittsfield” — the mix of rock salt and calcium chloride.
Morales writes that on Dec. 26, crews caught a break as the sun emerged, temperatures hit 22 degrees Fahrenheit and the “hard pack snow and ice gave way to black top on most of our mains.”