‘Snowmageddon’ part two?

The 2010 “snowmageddon” pummeled Washington, D.C., with a series of blizzards in February, the last of which ground government offices to a four-day halt and left the nation’s capital under more than three feet of snow.

On Capitol Hill alone, the Architect of the Capitol’s office removed more than 10,000 tons of snow from the Capitol complex as broken branches dotted the Capitol lawns and mounds of snow sat piled on nearly every corner like turret stations.

“It was uncanny,” said a Democratic chief of staff who braved the weather to come into the office the next day. “We didn’t know what to do — it was so much snow. I only hope they use it as a teaching moment if we get more of the same this year.”

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As makeshift as last year’s response to the snow may have seemed to some staffers, the AOC’s office, which employs thousands of people to maintain the Capitol and its grounds, develops and executes a detailed plan for every major weather event. They say they’re ready for nearly anything that Mother Nature may throw at them this year.
“The plan outlines actions the AOC takes if there is one inch of snow on the ground or 30 inches,” spokeswoman Eva Malecki said. “It details priority areas to be cleared first to assure emergency access, and includes a staffing plan.”

When more than 200,000 federal workers received the day off from work during last year’s blizzards, the hundreds of employees working on the AOC’s snow-removal force logged more than 35,000 hours getting the Capitol grounds back to working condition.

“When others were told to stay indoors, the AOC’s dedicated staff were out in the cold and wind, attending to the task at hand,” Malecki said. “And, once the snow ended, our work did not. Our crews continued to remove piles of snow from across the campus, treat the sidewalks, streets, and parking lots as the snow melted and refroze overnight.”

One AOC employee who helped in the snow-removal process said he has not heard a lot of discussion at work about a major snowstorm this year. But, he said, if another blizzard hit the Capitol, they would be ready to log the long hours again and tackle it. Similarly, the U.S. Capitol Police force is prepared to book hotel and motel rooms for officers scheduled to work during a snowstorm, as it did last year during the blizzards.

One ongoing concern for a building as old as the Capitol is that when snow melts, leaks can sprout, as they did in several areas last year. The AOC’s office said there were only minor damages throughout the Capitol complex, including a few concrete parking bumpers and a couple of signs that needed replacing.

Some lawmakers skied to work after “snowmageddon,” and Capitol Police officers supervised groups of sledders on the West Front of the Capitol. The vast majority of lawmakers praised the Capitol’s response, but Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D) last year took to the Senate floor to chide city residents for not knowing how to handle the snow.

Durbin and several other lawmakers who oversee the committees with jurisdiction over the snow cleanup declined to comment for this article.

A Republican legislative director said she was concerned that with the House expected to break for the first week in February, some lawmakers may find it impossible to return to Washington in the event that a similar storm hits this year.

Already, several snowstorms have pummeled the East Coast this season, and every major city there has received well above its average snowfall. New York City has been hit especially hard, with three feet of snow so far. Among those affected have been House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who was among the hundreds who faced three-hour delays at the airport last week.

Of course, another week’s worth of snow cleanup this year would not come cost-free. The Office of Personnel Management estimated that the loss of productivity for federal employees not going to work last year came to approximately $100 million each day.

The office of the AOC said it budgeted for last year’s snowstorm and plans to do the same this year. It’s unclear how much the Capitol clean-up efforts cost in 2010, but the city’s local government has received $11.1 million in assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including $2.5 million announced earlier this month.

Though the Washington area has received only a fraction of the snow it did last season at this time, last year’s “snowmageddon” has meteorologists hedging their bets on whether a major snowfall is in store for February. Weather experts are calling for a light snowfall in the area on Wednesday, but the chances of an accumulation of more than one foot are small.

Whatever the amount of snow that’s in store for Capitol Hill this season, the office of the AOC says staffers and lawmakers can rest assured that they are in good hands and that a plan is already in motion to keep them safe and get them back to work as quickly as possible.

“You could say that the lesson learned is that our snow plan works,” Malecki said.

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