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District Wire

City begins snow preparation; meteorologists predict milder winter despite El Niño

 A snowy campus (Ana Santos/The Eagle).

For the many city residents who see winter as a nuisance, Monday’s D.C. Council hearing on snow preparedness may bring some cautious optimism. Meteorology experts testified they expect milder conditions than last year, when National Airport recorded 18.3 inches of snow.

“It’s stacked towards being a warmer or milder than normal winter,” Chris Strong of the National Weather Service told the Committee on Transportation and the Environment.

The tradeoff is precipitation, which is predicted to be higher than average. A rise in rain and snow had been attributed to a phenomenon known as an El Niño, where warming southern waters bring moist air to northern areas. Recent media reports suggest D.C. may face heavier snow totals as a result — Mayor Muriel Bowser last week said as much at a snow preparation event — but Strong shrugs it off.

“Does it mean that we’ll be blasted by El Nino and we’ll all have to stay in our homes? Not really,” Strong said. Washington, D.C. lies too far north, he explained, for precipitation increases to be anything but modest. Warmer temperatures in the Washington area will also cause would-be snow to fall as rain.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh (D), the chair of the committee, was pleased and confident in the report. “You were really on the money last time about lower than normal temperatures,” she told Strong.

Cheh noted the lower temperatures of last year caused small snowfalls to linger on roads and bridges — creating problems for commuters and slowing trash pickup. Matt Ross, senior forecaster for the Washington Post, said at the hearing that’s less likely this year. “I don’t think the last two winters are a good gauge [for] this winter.”

Last Friday, Bowser kicked off a snow preparation “dry run” event at the Fort Totten salt dome. Snow plow trucks travelled their routes and over 800 city employees did the necessary administrative and logistical tasks involved in a snow removal event. The city also announced it has bought 14 heavy plow trucks and six light trucks, in addition to also renting 15 more trucks.

"We've taken a close look at previous snow seasons and improved on them,” Bowser said through a press release.

Christopher Shorter, acting director of the Department of Public Works, said a training event went “very well.” The key, Shorter admitted, is ensuring flawless performance continues when conditions are less than ideal.

This winter, a new city law will fine residents $25 and business owners $150 if they don’t shovel their sidewalks. Residents over the age of 65 and those who are disabled are exempt; to help seniors and disabled people, the city hopes to recruit 2,500 volunteers for its Resident Snow Team.

When asked about environmental concerns surrounding by road salt, Shorter emphasized steps taken to reduce the amount of salt used, and the milder salts used on sidewalks, which are safer for pets. While more environmentally-friendly options are available, Shorter’s department often is restricted to cheaper options, simply because of the sheer number of roadways they are required to service. The city has 41,000 tons of salt in reserve this year.

When snow starts to fall, Cheh offered to lend a hand herself.

Shorter smiled and said, “We’ll get you some gloves.”

districtwire@theeagleonline.com


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