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Costs of severe weather pile up for region


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With seven weeks of winter left, the harsh cold weather is proving costly — financially and emotionally.

“The problems and costs are far-reaching and stretch all across the board,” Bartholomew County Emergency Management Director Dennis Moats said.

If it seemed cold, it was. Last month’s temperatures were 18 percent colder than normal and 25 percent colder than those experienced in January 2013, Vectren Energy reports.

Columbus this winter has experienced 12 snow events, with four of them stretching over at least two days, Mayor Kristen Brown said.

“Everything just becomes more difficult,” said Mark Stewart, executive director of the Bartholomew County United Way.

“It really does elevate stress and depression for everyone. But those living on the margins in terms of their age, income, mental or physical health are especially affected,” he said.

Public sector

The city of Columbus, which clears 260 miles of streets including 1,300 intersections, has spent more than $225,000 for snow removal over the past few months, Brown said.

After spending $167,000 this season on salt, the city council was asked in January to approve spending another $137,000 for an additional 2,000 tons of salt and other road supplies.

Columbus City Garage manager Bryan Burton, who has worked 20 years in his department, remarked he could remember only one previous time in his career that extra money was requested for additional road salt.

Besides salt, the city has spent about $58,000 since early December for overtime, fuel, repairs and snow blades, which is a notable increase from the same time last year, Brown said.

Weekend winter storms require the most overtime, Burton said.

Outside the city, the Bartholomew County Highway Department has spent $132,182 since early December on salt, sand and overtime. That is a 50 percent increase from the same two-month period a year ago.

A similar comparison about city expenses was not immediately available.

As the county searches for additional salt, county highway engineer Danny Hollander recalled a similar nationwide shortage that took place in December 2008. At that time, the county was left with little choice but to pay $120 a ton — up from just $52 a ton paid just a few months earlier.

“Once again, we’re at the mercy of salt suppliers,” Hollander said.

And then, there are escalating utility costs for public buildings, as well as additional funds necessary to pay overtime for police who are called to work 12-hour or longer shifts during winter storms.

Those costs are likely to be tabulated later this spring, city and county officials said.

Private sector

With unrelenting cold bearing down on much of the nation, the cost to heat an average-size home in January in south-central Indiana with a gas furnace was estimated at $160 by Vectren Energy. That’s 23 percent more than the same month in 2013. However, bills vary by customer depending on the size and age of the home, number of gas appliances, number of people in the household, thermostat settings and levels of insulation.

Residents living in low-cost rental housing will likely pay substantially more, perhaps up to $300, since most reside in older buildings that don’t meet current energy efficiency standards, said Elizabeth Kestler, executive director of the Love Chapel in Columbus.

Duke Energy Indiana has not yet released January consumption figures.

In January, there was a report of at least one local manufacturer unable to run a production line because several employees and a key supplier couldn’t make it to the plant, said Cindy Frey, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce.

In most retail outlets and restaurants, employees aren’t paid if they don’t work, Moats said. Therefore, they have less money to cope with higher heating bills and other unexpected expenses such as transportation problems or child-care expenses during school closures or delays, he said.

When fewer people are willing to go out for a meal, it’s especially hard on waiters and waitresses who rely on customer tips for a good part of their income. Even when workers brave the ice, snow and cold and make it in, their productivity is often diminished as they are forced to address personal weather-related problems, Frey said.

The human price

Although the harsh winter is physically challenging to the elderly and disabled, Stewart said the emotional and mental problems suffered by people of all ages often can be overlooked.

What some people dismiss as cabin fever often begins as a few problems that eventually snowball into multiple problems, said Julie Miller, executive director of Family Service Inc.

Although it may begin as seasonal depression or anxiety, the condition is aggravated by additional stress factors that might include being cooped up with kids on a snow day, financial worries, essential drives on snow or ice, burst water pipes or auto problems, Miller said.

In many instances, the stress is compounded by fear concerning the next big snowstorm. That condition is extremely prevalent among road crew members, Burton said.

“Worries and stresses about what’s going to happen next affects not only my guys but their wives and their kids,” Burton said. “They have a lot on their plates.”

While Miller and Kestler say services from nonprofit organizations are in high demand at this time, they also have staff or volunteers unable to make it in.

“It really aggravates our staff when we can’t support our families when they need it,” Miller said.

In terms of dollars, Family Service lost 11 percent of its monthly revenue because staff couldn’t make home visits. Miller said.

Another 12 percent of that revenue was spent on paying salaried staff members during the two days they were closed last month, Miller said.

Low-income residents who use food pantries are often unable to replenish supplies, Kestler said. Cold weather also resulted in a drop of donations, she said.

While public services such as Call-A-Bus in Columbus help patients travel to the doctor or a drugstore, many living outside the city might be putting themselves at risk by not obtaining needed medications and medical attention, Miller said.

What’s good

Once the winter weather is over, Hoosiers might be more willing to discuss the benefits of frigid cold, including fewer disease-carrying bugs and healthier trees and plants and even long-term health benefits for runners suffering from exercise-related damage and pain, according to Accuweather, a national weather forecasting and information service.

But right now, most Bartholomew County residents are just sick of this winter and want it to be over, Moats said.

“If people can just hang on and do what’s necessary to keep their spirits up, they’ll come out fine,” Moats said. “Don’t let Old Man Winter get you down.”

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