Internal Failures Paralyzed Pittsburgh during Storm


 
 

CARL PRINE | | Monday, February 22, 2010


On the morning of Feb. 6, Pittsburgh Public Works Director Robert "Kaz" Kaczorowski greeted his frowning boss, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. In bad spirits even after celebrating his 30th birthday at the Foggy Goggle pub at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, Ravenstahl clomped into the Emergency Operations Center in Point Breeze like a baseball manager making the long walk from the dugout to the mound to ask a shaky pitcher for the ball. Pittsburgh was deluged with nearly two feet of snow overnight, and traffic wasn't moving.

"He said, 'We lost this,' " said Kaczorowski, 51, of Crafton Heights. "I said, 'I think you're right.' He talked and said, 'I'm declaring a state of emergency. We're handing some of this off to contractors.' "

Some Public Works staffers told Kaczorowski the mayor's decision upset them, but the man who worked his way up the ranks from laborer understood.

"Some staff did, but I thought, 'You know, you need help.' And we did need help," said Kaczorowski. "Since I personally experienced it, watching the pickups go down on the secondary roads, I knew we were in trouble. It was too wet, too heavy and we didn't have the equipment to fight it."

Although Ravenstahl's administration continues to dig out from what might be the worst blizzard to hit the city in 125 years of recorded weather, Kaczorowski, Public Safety Director Mike Huss and other key figures on the mayor's team are exploring why the city was so overwhelmed and what needs to be fixed before next year's first flakes fall:

Public Works needs more people and heavy equipment;

Unnamed supervisors in two of the department's six districts didn't measure up and will be shifted to other duties;

Police and ambulance crews failed to properly prep vehicles for the snow, requiring rescues from plow trucks;

A phased snow emergency plan will outline where residents can park cars and how private contractors fit into the city's operations; and,

Chainsaws, ambulance snow chains and other gear have been purchased. Other innovations might include global positioning devices in trucks.

"If it happens again, the city will be better prepared. We'll have a more inclusive plan. The Department of Public Works will cooperate better with emergency services," said Kaczorowski.

Kaczorowski awards the First Division that plows much of the North Side an "A" grade and gives a "B" to the Fifth Division that maintains the southwestern cusp of the city, from Fairywood to Beechview. But he refuses to publicly rate the other four divisions. He blames many of their problems on public safety vehicles that repeatedly got stuck and had to be rescued, diverting his crews from primary routes increasingly choked with an icy "hard pack" -- diversions that led to cascading failures in the city's intricate snow and ice removal plan.

Other problems exposed by the blizzard -- ambulances that ride too low through snow and a lack of police sport utility vehicles -- likely won't be addressed.

That's because cutting fuel costs and preventing paramedic back injuries probably trumps navigating rare winter disasters.

"It's a trade off," said Huss.

WEATHER WALLOP

Armed with early warnings from meteorologists contracted by the city, Kaczorowski knew that Pittsburgh could get hit with a foot of snow. During the early moments of the Feb. 5 storm, he pulled out the city's plan for a "Class D-type storm with varying conditions greater than 12 inches" and ordered his teams to sprinkle about 900 pounds of salt on every mile of asphalt.

But early glops of sleet washed away the pre-treatment. Instead of Pittsburgh plows whisking snow over hoods as in the blizzard of 1993, they smacked it thick against curbside cars, encasing them in an icy sarcophagus.

At 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5, Kaczorowski received his last e-mailed update from Bridgeville's Air Science Consultants. Meteorologists warned that the storm line had jogged about 50 miles north and that 10 to 15 inches of snow would fall. By the end of the weekend, however, at least another 7 inches would blanket the city.

According to chief meteorologist Daniel Krzywiecki, scientists across the region never realized how much moisture had soaked into the atmosphere, super-charging a large storm into perhaps the biggest back-to-back deluge in a century.

"That's what impressed me -- the amount of moisture," said Krzywiecki.

The wet snow knocked out Kaczorowski's smaller vehicles trundling down secondary streets. Instead of plowing 50 miles each in a 12-hour shift, the drivers took more than 45 minutes to navigate a quarter-mile of road.

Hardest hit: A dozen two-wheel drive pickups purchased by former public works chief Guy Costa to clear small streets and alleys.

"I think he made a mistake when he went with the two-wheeled drive vehicles," said Kaczorowski. "He thought he was getting a bigger bang for the buck, but some of the dump trucks and pickup trucks weren't worthy of the snow."

Costa didn't return calls seeking comment.

Kaczorowski said Costa tried to shave costs as mandated by the state Acts 11 and 47 legislation that have tagged Pittsburgh as a financially distressed community since 2004. Skimping prodded previous administrations to gut the department's construction division -- once home to much of the fleet's heavy equipment -- and whittled employment across the divisions.

During the blizzard of 1993, the city summoned 453 workers to battle the drifts. Today, Public Works fields fewer than 300.

The department's fleet of plowers and salt spreaders stands today at 51 -- about as many as Allegheny County operates to clear 800 miles of roadways. The city maintains 1,100 miles of municipal streets, plus another 200 miles of state roads.

The durable but tiny "Bombardiers" used to rid side streets of snow are nearing their third decade of service, according to Kaczorowski. The department owns only two backhoes and one died before the stormed rolled in, forcing the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to provide Pittsburgh with mammoth earthmovers.

Kaczorowski's wish list: A dozen new skidloaders and four tri-axle trucks designed to work as well planting trees as tunneling through snow. He wants to hire up to 18 drivers and operators to man them. He hopes their movements will be charted by GPS systems that feed directly into the mayor's 311 complaint system so that taxpayers can chart the fight against the snow as it unfolds.

RESCUED RESCUERS

On Feb. 5, Kaczorowski wasn't having problems solely with his secondary road crews. His primary route plowers failed to push off the snow before the dreaded "hard pack" set in.

The 2008 plan scripted to revamp Public Works' previously poor plowing performance is intricate -- kind of like a complex, interlinked power grid, according to Kaczorowski and his crews. When drivers stopped plowing to extricate police or paramedics, a cascading, systemic failure ensued citywide.

By Saturday morning, teams had abandoned even the main arteries to focus on vital roads leading to hospitals and emergency services. "In a regular snowstorm, you can afford to pull a (DPW) truck to help," said Public Safety Director Huss. "But we had so many ambulances stuck, and we also had a lot of police stuck, that we had their trucks helping us. There were constant emergency calls coming in. I made the decision later on, that's it. Let Public Works focus on the streets. If they open up the streets, then we don't have vehicles stuck."

Police wagons weren't affected because they're four-wheel drive vehicles. Fire trucks fared relatively well. Assistant Fire Chief James Crawford said that only seven of his heavy trucks got stuck because durable steel chains kept the tires moving and firefighters carry shovels onboard -- and don't mind using them.

The city is still probing the number of stuck Emergency Management Services ambulances and police cruisers. Police officials didn't return calls seeking comment. Paramedics referred questions to Huss.

"EMS had switched to a cable-like chain that was easier to put on and that did not come loose as often. And they had worked fine for EMS. But with the amount of snow we had, they didn't work," said Huss.

EMS city replaced the chains during the emergency with better models purchased in Johnstown. But because so many ambulances and police cruisers kept getting trapped, Pennsylvania National Guardsmen activated for the emergency helped first responders run more than 200 missions -- from picking up prescriptions at neighborhood pharmacies to ensuring that dialysis patients got to their treatments.

"But you have to understand, we didn't need the National Guard. We had all the bodies that we needed. We just needed their four-wheel drive trucks," said city spokeswoman Joanna Doven.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Huss thinks the most recent storm helped to train inexperienced police and paramedics who weren't on the force when a blizzard struck 17 years ago. While he remains impressed with "real heroes" toiling at their tasks, he thinks first responders had become used to phoning Public Works for help instead of digging themselves out.

Watching a relatively young administration flail during the storm, some critics saw the same dynamic playing out in City Hall. On Feb. 10, Doug Shields, a 56-year-old Democratic city councilman from Squirrel Hill, outlined a plan to the administration that called on contractors and Public Works teaming up to "zone blitz" streets neighborhood-by-neighborhood, a strategy he compared to the "island hopping" campaigns of World War II, according to city e-mails leaked to the Trib.

Only when whole blocks were cleared would city trucks move on. In the meantime, Shields wrote, the city should let drivers park their cars in plowed municipal lots and parks without incurring fines, a practice common in New England and other regions that receive heavy snowfall.

Shield's tips leaped decades back in time, when the city had a staged snow removal plan similar to other major cities nationwide. Parts of it are echoed in the city code, which mandates fines for people illegally parking along primary routes in the early stages of a "snow emergency."

"I've been around awhile," said Shields when told of the leaked e-mails. "When I walked around, I saw what was happening. This administration has got to understand that they need a plan. Everyone on the team has to have a defined role. And they have to communicate that.

"It's like coaching a football game. Hines Ward doesn't just run around. He knows what he has to do and how he can help other people, and he practices how to do all that before the season starts. The city could learn from that."

Kaczorowski told the Trib that several administrations had allowed Pittsburgh's staged "snow emergency" system to "become obsolete." In a new draft, he hopes the city tells residents what they need to do to help out -- like moving their cars to special off-street parking lots, shoveling their sidewalks and around fire hydrants and clearing catch basins.

"Everybody wants to be the first helped out, and no one wants to be last," said Kaczorowski. "But we can have a way to have the response times people want and have everyone help us and each other."




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