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All hands on deck for unexpected snowstorm

The past week has just gone to show just how much of an inexact science weather prediction can be, particularly in the winter. Last Saturday delivered a serious dose of the white stuff thanks to a winter storm that travelled farther north than most meteorologists predicted, dumping 15 to 20 centimetres of snow on Waterloo Region instead of the two or three that was predicted.

Compare that to the over-hyped snowstorm on Wednesday of last week, forecast to be the worst in several years, but saw far less of the white stuff than meteorologists expected.

“I always say that when you’ve been in this business long enough that it’s the storms they don’t announce that are the one’s you have to watch out for,” said Willis McLaughlin, the director of public works in Wellesley. “We were kind of giggling about the ‘storm of the millennium’ (Feb. 3) and wondering about calling in the army,” he joked.

Despite the unexpected accumulation in the area, McLaughlin said that road crews had no difficulty keeping the roads clear on Saturday and Sunday. He had the township’s three plows and two graders out on the roads, along with several pickup trucks.

“We don’t have an issue; everyone was in.”

The same can be said for Woolwich Township, which responded to the storm by calling in all of its road crews early Sunday morning to clean up the mess.

“It happened late enough Saturday afternoon, and when you get into a situation where you have to plow, had I called them in it would have been well after midnight before they had gotten done, and then they would have been back on the road at 4 a.m. the next morning,” explained Barry Baldasaro, Woolwich’s superintendant of public works.

“I decided that we would respond to any calls from the police, and called everyone in at 4 a.m. Sunday morning.”

Baldasaro said he had seven plows and one grader out on Sunday morning, and that road crews had the roads clear by the early afternoon.

When asked about the unexpected nature of the storm, Baldasaro just laughed and said that despite all the weather reports he looks at each day, no two are ever the same.

“The lakes wreak such havoc in this area they have trouble predicting with anywhere close to the accuracy that they can say out in the prairies. For me, it’s nice when you know that storms are coming and you can prepare for it.”

With snow predicted by many meteorologists into April, Woolwich and Wellesley road crews are looking at their budgets and trying to figure out how to balance the numbers.

In Wellesley, the annual budget is around $220,000 for equipment, materials and wages. The materials portion of the budget – represented by sand and salt – is around $100,000, McLaughlin said.

“We’re down quite a bit in salt usage. We’re down to about 650 tons if I remember last year’s estimate, and 2,500 tons of sand, (with) the same projections for this year.”

McLaughlin also said that the township is on budget for the remainder of the season.

In Woolwich, the budget is a little bit higher, and rings in at a little over $500,000 for winter road maintenance. Manger of engineering Rod Kruger predicts they too will be on budget once again this year.

“You expect to get a few good blows, and that’s what we’ve got,” he said, adding that what really drives up costs is when there is a constant freezing and thawing, forcing the crews to apply more salt and sand to the roads to prevent them from icing up.

The material costs for Woolwich run about $130,000 for the sand and the salt, the labour costs for snow removal is around $180,000 and equipment costs are in the $240,000 range, over a five-year average.

“But it’s a bit of a crapshoot. Winter is winter, and you get some good years and some really rotten years,” Kruger laughed, adding that although the township is on budget thus far, the figure covers all of 2011. That means if there’s bad weather next November or December, the township could have to draw on its reserve funds.

“It’s not like paving a road; you have a choice to either pave the road or not pave the road,” he explained. “With winter maintenance, when the snow comes you have the responsibility of being out there from a public safety point of view. You have to deal with it.”

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