City, School District Take Proverbial Snowball to Face Over Lackluster Storm Response
By Brandi Makuski
Local officials have been taking a lot of heat over what looks like — from the outside — a delayed response to heavily snow-covered roadways on Tuesday.
The Stevens Point Metro Area was expecting up to six inches of white stuff on Jan. 10, with the heaviest snow forecast to hit in the mid-afternoon. What actually happened, though, is a different story.
According to the National Weather Service, a total of 11 inches of snow fell in the Metro area on Tuesday; and the storm hovered over the area much longer than expected.
“I’ve been called everything in the book today,” said Craig Gerlach, superintendent of Stevens Point public schools, during a phone interview on Jan. 10. “Our phone’s been ringing off the hook.”
Gerlach said he and others in the district had been monitoring the coming storm since Monday — and they planned for it.
“The plan was, based on all the information we had, to [release students] at the regular time; the storm was supposed to decrease, giving plows time to get through and clean up the roads before the buses went out,” Gerlach said.
But just before lunch, Gerlach said the storm slowed and “sat here longer than we thought it would”. By then, he said, it was too late to dismiss students early.
“I’m looking at the radar thinking, ‘Do we pull the plug and start busing our kids at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, in the heart of the storm, or do we wait?’, because towards the end of the day it was supposed to subside,” Gerlach said. “But by then we were beyond the point where we could make that decision — we’ve got to make the decision to release early by 10:30, 11 o’clock in the morning. It was just too late.”
As a result of the storm, some buses got stuck on snow-covered roads, and others were late dropping kids off, according to the district’s transportation office.
Scott Schatschneider, director of public works for the city, said his crews were also caught off guard.
“We’ve had a real tough time keeping up, with the way the snow has fallen,” Schatschneider said Tuesday afternoon, adding when the storm slowed, it “significantly” caused backups and delays in clearing the roads.
“That’s why we were late to the draw with the snow emergency,” he said. “There was no reason for us to even be thinking about the snow emergency until much later in the day, when it became clear the forecast was wrong.”
Around 12:30 PM on Tuesday, Schatschneider said he, Mayor Mike Wiza and Streets Superintendent Dennis Laidlaw made the decision to declare a snow emergency.
“Snow was coming faster and flakes were getting bigger; at one point I looked out the window and thought, ‘It almost looks like it’s snowing snowballs,'” he said. “That’s why at 12:30 we’re like, ‘OK, hit the snow emergency button’.”
The city declares snow emergencies cautiously, Schatschneider said.
“We don’t like hitting that snow emergency button every time it snows because the realty of it is, we do live in Central Wisconsin, and it does snow.”
The storm packed a double punch, Schatschneider said: not only did the storm slow down and produce more precipitation than expected, but it occurred at the worst possible time of day.
“Given the way the snow fell, the time of day, the middle of the week — when it snows like this during the daytime, when everybody’s out and about, plowing the roads becomes next to impossible,” he said. “It creates a total inconvenience for residents and folks who use the street for parking.”
The city took more than it’s fair share of complaints from angry motorists, Schatschneider said, just as the school district did. Gerlach said he’s received over 100 calls and emails from angry students and parents.
“Our main concern is transportation and the safety of the kids; unfortunately the storm was stronger than anticipated,” Gerlach said. “If we’d have known, we would have made a different decision and not had school at all today.”