February 19, 2011

Shoveling roofs a first for local Connecticut National Guard - Journal Inquirer

Shoveling roofs a first for local National Guard: "Shoveling roofs a first for local National Guard"

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Monday, February 7, 2011 10:11 AM EST
A rash of roof collapses has spread like dominoes across the state since last week’s winter storms, but while some towns struggled to clear snow from schools and other buildings with whatever resources they had on hand, others were able to secure help from the National Guard.

“We have never in the past been asked … to shovel snow off of roofs from previous snowstorms. Even when we go back to ’78, storm Larry, the Guard did not go out to clean off roofs,” Lt. Col. John Whitford, spokesman for the National Guard, said Friday.

During the infamous blizzard of 1978, which shut down the state for a week, Gov. Ella T. Grasso utilized the Guard to help clear roads, but Whitford emphasized that, “This is something unique. With the amount of snow that we’ve received since Christmas, it’s just unbelievable.”

Whitford said service members were activated to help clear school roofs in Vernon, Tolland, and Naugatuck, but only after a lengthy request and review process by the state Department of Emergency Management, and Homeland Security, and the office of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

“We in the Guard have two missions: We have a mission from the president for federal call-up where we have soldiers and airmen deployed overseas, and we also have the governor. If he declares a state of emergency and activates the Guard, then we go out. He’s our boss, and we respond to state emergencies, hurricanes, floods, snowstorms,” and the like, he said.

But Whitford stressed that town officials first must declare a state of emergency and prove that they’ve exhausted all of their local resources before the state will step in.

“It’s a very tedious process, it is a very long process they have to go through in order to get an approval,” Whitford said. “We’re the last guys to come out to provide some kind of relief and support because they’ve exhausted everything else at their fingertips prior to us.”

What about us?’Other towns have expressed outrage that some municipalities received assistance while others did not, and Whitford acknowledged that “maybe the towns didn’t know” that requesting help was an option available to them.

“I think there’s a misconception out there by some of the towns that all we need to do is call the Guard and they’ll come. That’s not the case, and we’re hearing it from the other towns. For example, Ellington’s saying, ‘Hey, how come these towns got the OK?’ All of a sudden the other towns have been, ‘What about us, what about us?’”

Whitford said that while many towns have contacted the Guard to ask for help, municipal leaders must coordinate such requests with state officials.

Others have suggested that service members simply begin clearing all school roofs in the state, rather than focusing on specific towns. But with almost 1,700 schools in Connecticut and only 5,000 troops in the Guard, Whitford said, that isn’t an option.

“That’s not the makeup, design, or the role of the National Guard. It may sound great, but there are legal pieces in place and the towns should be aware that when it comes to something like this, they have to justify it,” Whitford said. “And there is a price tag. When all is said and done, the billpayer is the town. It’s not just free labor — there is a price that is associated with us coming.”

That expense is what’s kept some towns from requesting the Guard.

First Selectwoman Christina Mailhos of Willington said her town is pooling its resources to try to take care of the issue without outside help.

“We had closed the schools on Thursday to work on the roofs,” Mailhos said. “We had teachers, custodians, public works crew, the superintendent, and even myself on the roofs trying to clear the snow.”

Mailhos said the Fire Department hauled snow blowers to the rooftops as well as used roof rakes. “Together, it was an amazing effort,” she said.

“We managed to get the snow removed from the major areas of concern on the buildings,” Mailhos said. “Right now, it’s unnecessary to call in the National Guard, but if the weather continues like this for the rest of the season, we might have to.”

Per day: $20,000 to $60,000According to Mailhos, town officials had tried contacting the National Guard early last week, but were informed there was a possible activation fee of $20,000.

Rich Harris, spokesman for the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said towns must agree in advance to reimburse the National Guard for its services — and it can be costly, depending on the type of work needed.

Shoveling snow from roofs costs municipalities from $20,000 to $60,000 per day, Harris said.

Using the National Guard is really an option of last resort, Harris said.

Deployment is approved by the governor’s office for towns that can’t to do the job on their own and are unable to find a private contractor to do the job for them, he said.

Guardsmen are not to supplant town public works crews or replace town resources, Harris said.

In Manchester, Mayor Louis A. Spadaccini said there has been “constant monitoring” of school and town building roofs, which were being cleared of snow by staff and private contractors. An engineer has inspected several buildings, and officials were taking action, he added.

Snow and ice were removed from the High School and Washington School roof early last week, and on Friday the Botticello garage at the landfill, and the water and sewer treatment plant on Spring Street were cleared, he said.

There are some concerns about the Lutz Children’s Museum, which might also need its roof shoveled, he added.

“We are doing everything to monitor the condition of the roofs and ensure the integrity of the buildings and the safety of the public,” Spadaccini said, adding: “We’re getting rid of the snow and ice where we deem it necessary.”

For now, the National Guard is not being tapped for work. Using private contractors is expensive, at about $100 an hour for labor, he said.

Drifts were 5 to 7 feet tall
Vernon's Mayor Jason McCoy was the first town to request emergency assistance after structural engineer James Silva determined that its schools’ roofs were carrying more than twice the recommended weight limit.

Whitford said the first shift of 85 Army and airmen started shoveling roofs there at 1 a.m. Thursday and worked for about 12 hours. Another shift of 75 troops arrived at 10:30 a.m., so “at one point in time we had 150 people on the ground at one time,” he said, adding that the second shift worked until 9 p.m.

Many of the troops that responded to Vernon’s schools had just returned from Afghanistan in November. A different crew from the 103rd Airlift Wing in East Granby responded to Tolland’s schools Friday morning.

A hundred airmen began work at 6 a.m. and Whitford said he expected the crew to turn cleanup back over to the town around 7 p.m.

“We’re extremely grateful for the assistance they’ve provided — they’ve been moving a tremendous amount of snow,” Tolland Town Manager Steven R. Werbner said Friday.

An engineer who examined the schools told town officials “we shouldn’t have loads in any one area that exceed 22 to 24 inches. We’ve got areas where it’s drifted 5 to 7 feet deep, so you’ve got to disperse that snow into other areas where you’ve already shoveled in order to balance out the load,” Werbner said.

Werbner said officials were left with “a very small window” to clear roofs before even more snow accumulated. He added that the cleanup likely would cost the town more than $20,000, but that figure is a pittance compared with the expense of a collapsed school.

Civilians on roof is ‘calculated risk’Tolland fire officials asked residents to provide their shovels and equipment for the Guard’s efforts, and about 22 people loaned snow blowers, Werbner said. On Thursday night, officials were forced to travel all the way to Norwich to purchase 50 additional shovels because all other local stores have sold out.

Werbner said town employees would pick up work where service members left off, but as for local volunteers, “we couldn’t have any civilians on the roof because of liability.”

In Vernon, however, officials sent reverse 911 calls to residents at noon on Friday and Saturday, and emergency e-mail messages to teachers requesting “the assistance of able-bodied residents with shovels or snow blowers to assist with clearing snow from the roof of Rockville High School.”

At least 45 residents had responded as of Saturday, according to Director of Emergency Management Michael Purcaro.

Town Attorney Harold Cummings said inviting residents onto the roof of a building covered in snow was a calculated risk.

“We’re weighing the risks of what is the potential cost for a school roof collapsing on 100 children, damage to the building, damage to the kids, versus potentially having a compensation claim for somebody that slipped off the roof and broke a leg. We will take care of the broken leg as a fair tradeoff for keeping our kids safe,” Cummings said.

He added that the job of removing thousands of pounds of snow from massive school roofs requires a lot of work, and town employees who have been shoveling and plowing for days on end simply need a break.

Shoveling not glamorous, but an honor
Vernon emergency officials met with the Town Council and Board of Education at a special meeting Saturday, during which Town Finance Officer James Luddecke gave an update on snow removal expenses.

The National Guard charged the town for 88 service members at a unit cost of $200, for a total of $17,600, which Mayor Jason L. McCoy called, “an excellent deal,” adding that he tried to get the Guard to return over the weekend.

Purcaro and other officials said they’ve put in requests for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Rep. Timothy Ackert, R-Vernon, said that, “we’re hoping to hear something this week,” regarding potential funding.

Schools in Tolland and Vernon remained closed today so snow removal could continue.

Whitford said that much of the state’s Guard force consists of part-timers who took time off work from their civilian jobs to help with the cleanup.

He listed some of the other incidents for which the Guard has been called out, including Hurricane Katrina, the flooding last March in Griswold, and the snowstorm a few weeks ago when 20 troops and two wreckers were used to pull Hartford city buses out of snowdrifts.

And while shoveling snow off school roofs may not be as thrilling as rescuing victims of a national crisis like Katrina, “We’re honored to do it,” Whitford said. “We bring another set of expertise to the table when we have a mission like this, because we have a lot of guys who live in the community and work in the community. This is one of the reasons why they joined, to help out the community, so we’re trying to help out and bring some normalcy back.”

Town officials and businesses organized meals for the troops and other workers, and Whitford said that many Guard members have been laughing and enjoying themselves during the last few days’ whirlwind efforts.

“Despite the cold, despite the shoveling, despite all that snow, I think the morale is very high,” he said.

Journal Inquirer staff writer Kym Soper and intern Zachary Perras contributed to this story.

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