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Blizzard assessment starts, storm looms

One week after a blizzard blew through the state, similar stories of its aftermath are echoing in cities and towns across the Commonwealth. After days of disarray, communities have reopened schools, restored power, cleared roads, and are now beginning the task of damage assessment.

And with many emergency weather services already stretched thin, the National Weather Service is forecasting that another storm could dump as much as 6 inches of snow on the eastern half of the state late Saturday and early Sunday.

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In many of the hardest hit communities, the last storm strained local governments’ financial capacities to cope. Damage to infrastructure combined with costly but necessary overtime pay for emergency workers will force many communities to turn to the federal government for aid, said Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

“We have the financial flexibility to finance some of these emergency operations, but we’re going to have to apply for state or federal aid,” Gloucester Mayor Carolyn A. Kirk said. “When we evaluate how much money we put into this storm we have to realize we have a lot of winter left.”

Snow removal alone will cost Gloucester hundreds of thousands of dollars, Kirk said. Replacing the destroyed seawall at Lanes Cove will probably approach $2 million, and then the city must consider damage to private property.

Gloucester, like many communities, will be forced to spend more money than it has in its snow and ice budget, Kirk said.

Judge said the state will need to reach a threshold of around $9 million in damages in order to receive the bulk of possible federal aid. If the aid is approved, individual counties must then prove they meet similar thresholds, which are determined by damage per-capita.

Despite recent delays in funding aid to victims of hurricane Sandy, Judge said he is not concerned that the process will drag out for Massachusetts.

“Things have changed dramatically with the availability of money for these programs,” Judge said. “But the devastation you saw with Sandy is not what you have out here.”

In Scituate, life has returned to normal for everyone except emergency workers, said Tony Vegnani, vice-chairman of the Board of Selectmen. School resumed on Thursday and the town’s shelter, which at one point during the storm housed 165 people, closed down on Tuesday.

The same day, the Board of Selectmen authorized $750,000 to be drawn out of Scituate’s rainy day fund, which contained between $2 million and $3 million, to pay for snow cleanup, Vegnani said.

There are still trees down, roads to clear, and houses damaged, and Vegnani said the town will certainly apply for federal aid.

“The cleanup is very expensive, with all the overtime and equipment,” he said. “Our emergency crews, our fire chief, our police chief all worked non-stop.”

Up the coast from Scituate, the storm cleanup tested Quincy’s physical and financial reserves.

After a citywide blackout during the storm on Feb. 8, all residents have power again, said Christopher Walker, spokesman for Mayor Thomas P. Koch. The streets are mostly clear of leftover debris and the cleanup crews are in the process of clearing the last few streets that still have lanes blocked by snow.

“Our cleanup crews and emergency responders worked straight out for three to four days,” Walker said.

Koch is considering diverting money from a $30 million capital investment fund to help cover the cost of the blizzard, Walker said.

“We don’t know if we are going to meet those aid thresholds yet,” he said.

The city began this winter with $450,000 in an emergency weather account and $1.2 million in its snow and ice budget, which the state allows to be spent into deficit, Walker said. Over the past five years, the city has spent an average of $2 million per year on storm cleanup, he said, and the recent blizzard was far more costly than any other storm during that time.

“We don’t skimp on snow removal, it costs what it costs,” he said. “This year we’re probably going to be into deficit, largely because of the storm.”

The process of assessing the damage the blizzards caused across the state will begin this weekend, Judge said. Cities and towns will start completing paperwork documenting their estimated damage to city property, roads, sidewalks, and the equipment and overtime pay costs for snow removal.

After the forms are returned to the state, federal and state emergency management agents will travel to the communities to perform their own cost assessments.

Historically, emergency money has come to the Commonwealth in a timely manner, Judge said, but he added that after large storms, nothing is certain.

“The way things have happened in Washington in recent years you can’t go by the time frames of other disasters, where in a relatively short amount of time people see money,” he said.

Todd Feathers can be reached at todd.feathers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ToddFeathers.
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