(Jan. 24, 2014)Perhaps the Weather Channel gets more viewers if a snowstorm has a name like a hurricane. Somehow, “Janus” could never be mentioned even in the same breath as a “Super Storm Sandy.” The channel’s dubbing of Tuesday’s snowfall after the two-faced Roman god of transition served as a descent enough metaphor for the storm, which pressed local governments and businesses into a role they seldom have to take on.
“These are landscapers, demolition crews, and towing companies – anybody who has big trucks you can put plows on,” said Igor Conev of Mann Properties, which is responsible for dozens of buildings in the resort area.
“It’s actually a pretty good deal for them, because obviously they’re not doing as much work in the winter.”
Like Conev, many local business and residential owners find themselves putting together a crew of snow removal staff from other industries. Given the sporadic nature of the work, and the recent spell of warm winters on the East Coast, many have found it difficult to justify the cost of keeping snow gear on hand.
“It’s a good hustle when it happens, but the cost of materials will drag you under,” said local contractor Scot VanFossen, who gave up his commercial-level supplies several years ago. “If I ever get back into it, I would do cash-in-hand jobs, the homeowner-type stuff.”
Tuesday night and Wednesday morning saw four inches of snow fall in the resort, according to weather data. It was much higher in many places, given the drift from strong winds that piled snow several feet high along some structures.
The Weather Channel started naming winter storms in 2011 – even those that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would not normally give titles to. Picked up by other media and government outlets, the personification of weather as a Lex Luthor-style villain – Monday’s weather.com headline was “Janus Targets Millions” – only adds to the frenzy.
“The way they were talking about it, I was expecting some sort of catastrophe,” Conev said. “But this wasn’t really that much.”
Amplifying this is the relative rarity – and thus novelty – of snow on the shore.
“I came down here five years ago and we heard there would be ‘a dusting,’ and it was a mass panic,” said Dave Messina.
Originally from Bergen County, N.J., Messina now runs a maintenance company in Ocean Pines that offered snow clearing services this week.
“I looked at my wife and said ‘what is this?’” Messina said. “I don’t get why everyone freaks out about it.”
Worcester County schools were closed Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The Town of Ocean City had a liberal leave policy in effect for employees as of 2 p.m. Tuesday, and Worcester County encouraged anyone without adequate heat to seek shelter in one of the five county libraries or the Snow Hill recreation center.
The hype didn’t prevent local agencies form carryout the same plans they have relied on, storm after storm.
“We had staff in this morning installing the plows on our trucks, getting everything ready, fueling up, checking lights,” said Ocean City Department of Public Works Construction Manager Wood Vickers.
“We have a skeleton crew on now, knowing that everyone will have to come back in tonight,” Vickers said Tuesday afternoon. “This is my fist winter here, but they’ve got it down to a science.”
The city has 11 snow plows, which it runs in front of dump trucks and other hauling vehicles. The city also has three salt spreaders, as well as five backhoes and five front-end loaders that can be pressed into service.
Notably, Ocean City is able to develop a detailed plan of attack for snow storms based on where it has the most permanent residents, using the town’s Geographic Information Systems server that is used for zoning and land records.
“City Hall, through the GIS, will know the areas that have more year-round residents and are more occupied, and that’s how we prioritize where removal takes place,” Vickers said.
For private property, the process is no less effective. On Wednesday, Conev started driving checking client properties at 7 a.m.
“We know who lives where year-round,” he said. “If there’s no one living there, there’s no reason to plow.”
Mann Properties uses several large contractors, such as Absolute Demolition and Cropper’s Towing, who have plow-capable trucks.
“We divide the properties by location and we’ll assign different companies to different areas,” Conev said.
But aside from a few companies, commercial snow removal is a tricky business, given the amount of investment required.
Matt Hendrix of Eastern Shore Tree Removal has been offering snow removal for 20 years, but said only six or seven of them have been worth it. He once went so far as to buy a truck for the purpose, but it wasn’t worth it.
“I had the truck for 10 years and plowed twice,” he said. “But I can use it in the tree industry.”
With a large crew of landscapers and lawn care workers at his disposal, Messina planned to offer old-fashioned hand-shoveling during the storm, something that many were gearing up to do.
“We’ve gotten rid of a lot of shovels,” said Pierre Dennis at Fenwick Hardware. “We sold a lot more volume than before.”
Most of these, Dennis said, were in the morning before the storm hit, when weather-related paranoia was at its height.
“Some people watch the news and panic, but a lot say ‘this is Ocean City, we only ever get a dusting,’” said Jesse Scott at Ace Hardware on 69th Street, who said that sales of snow supplies were strong, but not out of the ordinary.