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Plymouth County

State appeals exclusion of Plymouth County from snow-removal aid

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has denied an appeal by Massachusetts on behalf of Plymouth County for snow-removal aid for the Feb. 8 and 9 storm.

FEMA originally excluded Plymouth County from the aid on the basis that the area’s snowfall was not within 10 percent of the record. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency appealed June 5, saying the county experienced more severe effects from the heavy snowfall and widespread power outages than some of the counties granted aid.

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The state received notice Monday that the appeal was denied.

“After a thorough review and careful consideration of the information contained in your initial request and appeal, we reaffirm our original finding that Plymouth County did not receive record or near record snowfall, nor did it qualify as a contiguous county as required by FEMA’s Snow Assistance and Winter Storm Policy,” a FEMA representative said in a letter announcing the denial.

The federal agency previously approved, however, assistance to communities in the county for other costs arising from the same storm, such as for police time, shelter setup, and tree removal.

In his appeal, MEMA director Kurt N. Schwartz argued that despite falling short on depth, the snow far exceeded the applicable threshold for cost of removal. He argued that extended power outages, high winds, and heavy, wet snow created major snow-removal challenges for local authorities.

“Indeed,” he wrote, “given these extenuating circumstances, the impacts in Plymouth County were more significant than some other counties that exceeded their snowfall records.”

Attached to the state’s letter was a breakdown of how much money individual towns and the city of Brockton, the only city in Plymouth County, spent to clear snow and ice. According to the chart, Brockton spent more than $800,000, Plymouth more than $400,000, and Hingham, Marshfield, and Rockland more than $200,000 each. Numerous others — Abington, Bridgewater, Carver, East Bridgewater, Hanover, Hanson, Middleborough, Pembroke, and Wareham — spent at least $100,000 each.

The expenditures “absolutely” represent a hardship to the Wareham town budget, said John Walcek, a police lieutenant and the town’s deputy emergency management director.

“What made this storm different than a hurricane is the cold,” he said. Profoundly widespread power outages meant many residents had no heat in mid-winter temperatures, and some needed to be evacuated to shelters.

He said the town received a call from Southcoast Hospitals Group, which owns Tobey Hospital in Wareham, warning that patients were showing hypothermia symptoms. The National Guard helped Wareham police and firefighters make safety checks at virtually every mobile home in town, to be sure residents were keeping warm safely or seeking shelter.

But getting to those homes wasn’t easy, Walcek said — and that’s where the snow and ice removal costs came in.

Most communities hire outside contractors to beef up their plowing operations and to spread sand and salt. In Marshfield, emergency management director Paul Taber, a police lieutenant, said the $205,982 listed as Marshfield’s snow removal cost in the MEMA appeal is more like $300,000 when sand and salt are included.

He said the town is glad it will receive disaster aid for debris removal and other storm expenses; in addition to extensive tree damage, Marshfield saw damage to sea-wall caps and to “batter boards” that control the level of sea water, and generators burned out at a public water pumping station. FEMA was very responsive overall, Taber said, but he still hoped for snow-removal aid.

“We’re sincerely grateful to MEMA to take the time to appeal that,” he said.

Snow removal represented the largest portion of overall storm costs in the town of Plymouth, according to Aaron Wallace, emergency management director. At one time during the storm, 42 percent of the town’s roads were severely affected or impassable, and essentially 100 percent of the town was without electricity, he said. For 48 hours, emergency workers could not find any area of town unaffected by the outage.

Plymouth’s shelters were open for about five days. They served approximately 220 people for overnight stays, and more for meals, he said. Food costs alone topped $5,000; those costs are eligible for aid, separately from snow removal.

Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said the agency worked closely with the local FEMA office to document the storm. FEMA generally requires a snowfall to reach 90 percent of an area’s record snowfall to qualify for snow-removal aid. In Plymouth County, the official total for the February storm was 21.5 inches, 0.6 inches short of the threshold.

MEMA knew Plymouth County fell short, and tried to establish in its initial federal application that extenuating circumstances justified the assistance, Judge said. The appeal letter made the case, in a footnote, that the language of FEMA’s snow assistance policy allowed discretion in defining a “near record” snowfall.

Nonetheless, Judge said the appeal was a “long shot” and that FEMA normally holds to the 90 percent requirement.

“In this type of disaster, they are pretty stringent on sticking to that number,” he said.

Countywide, snow removal costs for the February storm have been documented at $5.6 million, including state funds expended in the county. Other storm-related costs, for things like debris removal, damaged equipment, and public safety overtime, totaled more than $11 million.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.
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