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Officials dig in on snow policies: Boards iron out traffic protocol in hazardous weather


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A Dodge Durango passes by a buried car on 17th Street.
A Dodge Durango passes by a buried car on 17th Street.

MVH truck hauls away snow on Washington Street.
MVH truck hauls away snow on Washington Street.


With less than a month before winter’s official arrival, Columbus and Bartholomew County officials want to ensure they are using the same playbook when and if a winter weather emergency has to be declared.

“There is a process that when severely bad weather sets in, measurements have to be taken,” Bartholomew County Commissioners Chairman Larry Kleinhenz said. “If we enact an emergency, we need both the commission chairman and the mayor of Columbus to sign the declaration.”

The last emergency was declared a few days before Christmas in 2004, when 20-plus inches of snow paralyzed the county.

But the passage of eight years is a key reason why the Bartholomew County Emergency Management director wants to go over the protocols with leading elected officials.

Dennis Moats is expected to meet within a week with both first-year Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown and County Commissioner Carl Lienhoop, who is expected to succeed Kleinhenz as chairman in

January.

Both Kleinhenz and Moats said a major factor to consider before declaring a weather emergency is the financial consequences. Kleinhenz said he recalls “both fondly and painfully” the first time he signed a snow emergency in the late 1990s.

“We issued it without totally understanding what impact a snow emergency has on local commerce,” Kleinhenz said. “In essence, a snow emergency says any non-emergency travel should not be done. Well, employees would say, ‘I can’t go to work.’ Then, the employers were angry. So we learned from that and have been more careful in trying to issue a snow emergency.”

However, Moats quickly points out caution is necessary for the benefit of everyone. He said workers risk their pay and possibly their jobs for a weather-related absence not approved by their supervisors.

“Its unrealistic to flat out say ‘no driving,’ because the impact is pretty profound in the community,” Moats said. “It’s what your company says, and that defines whether or not you’ll have an excused absence.”

Moats urged all workers to make sure they know and understand their company’s policies on weather-related absences before winter arrives.

Prior to the late 1990s, there was a general guideline that if Columbus received 12 or more inches of snow, officials would declare an emergency. But Moats said current measurements now factored into the decision have become far more complex.

“It’s not set in stone,” Moats said. “If we have a lot of ice under the snow, it makes a difference. Four inches with ice below can be more dangerous than 14 inches of snow without ice.”

Other factors include high winds, blowing snow and other forms of freezing precipitation. For example, the emergency management director cited a freezing fog that caused several dozen accidents last January during an otherwise mild winter.

“That was a real mess,” Moats recalled. “It took everybody at least an hour to get in their cars.”

One key factor in determining if an emergency should be declared is comparing driving conditions in Columbus with those in rural areas. Moats said that while the city is usually faster in snow and ice removal, an emergency declaration must apply to the entire county. Therefore, any decision must balance the two areas.

“We don’t want to see the city and county doing something different,” Moats said. “It just gets confusing.”

Another consideration is the time of day a winter storm arrives. If a snow or winter weather emergency is declared at night, residents are likely to receive the warning while they are still at home.

“But once you get to work, it’s too late,” Moats said.

Because some workers commute from other counties, local officials also must consider weather conditions and the geographical terrain throughout the region before making their decision.

With so many factors that now weigh in on the issuance of a weather emergency, Moats said elected officials and his office primarily rely on information and recommendations received from four local

agencies:

  • The Bartholomew County Highway Department
  • The Columbus City

Garage

  • The Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department
  • The Columbus Police

Department

Moats said another valuable resource used in the decision making process is the Counties Travel Advisories Map, maintained by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

The map is available online at in.gov/dhs/files/travel-advisory-map.

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