A December to remember

HANCOCK – It isn’t a record year for December snowfall amounts in the Copper Country, but it is the first time in years there has been this much snow before mid or late January, and departments of public works and county road commission crews are noticing the change.

Bill Marlor, Hancock DPW director, said he just started in that position in November, but he’s certain the amount of snow removed already is affecting the DPW budget.

“I’m sure it’s being taxed,” he said. “It’s certainly a lot more man-hours and material being used.”

Marlor said the DPW sand/salt mixture inventory is significantly affected by the December snow, with 30 to 40 percent already used.

“We may have to be looking for more sand,” he said.

Marlor said to clear the streets for Black Friday, Nov. 29, crews were already applying the sand/salt mixture in the city, and on Dec. 6, 134 tons were spread, which is the most for the month so far.

The DPW snow removal equipment is feeling the strain of the heavy snowfalls, also, Marlor said.

“It’s a full-time job for our mechanic,” he said.

Marlor said there are three shifts of DPW employees working daily to keep the snow off the city streets with another employee on call for spreading sand.

“The operations here are impressive,” he said.

Mark Zenner, City of Houghton DPW director, said December hasn’t really caused a problem for his employees.

“Everything is maintaining,” he said. “We’re still head above water.”

Kevin Crupi, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Negaunee Township, said although December snowfalls in the Keweenaw aren’t records, they are more significant than December in the last few years.

Crupi said some totals for December include 89.5 inches for Atlantic Mine, which is the most in Houghton County, 108.5 inches for Delaware in Keweenaw County (The total for the season in Delaware is 137 inches.), and 34.9 inches in Herman in Baraga County. The total as of Dec. 26 at the Keweenaw Research Center near the Houghton County Memorial Airport is 61 inches, which exceeds the normal total for the Houghton area of 52.9 inches. The record snowfall for December at the Houghton County Memorial Airport was 119 inches in 1978. In 1989, the amount for December was 106.7 inches, and in 1958, the amount was 107.6 inches.

“You wouldn’t even break into the top 15 (this year),” he said.

Crupi said the snow for December came from the usual source for the Keweenaw Peninsula.

“There’s been some (weather) system snowfalls, but it’s mostly lake effect,” he said.

In December 2009, Crupi said, at the Houghton County Memorial Airport the snowfall amount was 67.3 inches. In 2010, it was 32.8 inches, in 2011, it was 29 inches and last December, it was 18.5 inches.

Gregg Patrick, Keweenaw County Road Commission engineer, said so far the December snowfall hasn’t caused a problem for employees.

“If it snows, we (have to) plow it,” he said.

Patrick said he won’t know until January exactly how December has affected his budget, but he does know there has been a toll on equipment.

“We’ve got a definite strain,” he said. “Every day, something’s breaking down.”

Although the road commission’s store of sand and salt has taken a hit in December, Patrick said he doesn’t expect a problem because he figures a 20 percent reserve when ordering it.

“(What was used) is a little more than usual,” he said. “We think we’re going to be OK.”

The road commission’s $1.2 million annual budget is made up by state funding, Patrick said. The amount road commissions in the state get hasn’t changed since 1997.

Ray Saatio, maintenance supervisor with the Houghton County Road Commission, said December has been a concern financially.

“It’s taking a toll on the budget,” he said.

Because of cuts in funding from the state, Saatio said the number of employees in the department has been reduced, which is causing stress.

One of the things crews usually do in winter do is break up the hard-packed snow on the roads, known as mat, but because the graders used to do that are being used to plow, the mat isn’t being broken up.

Saatio said the Houghton County Road Commission crews haven’t spread a lot of salt, because the temperatures have been too cold. The temperatures need to be warmer so the melted snow and ice doesn’t just refreeze. Because of that, sand is being spread at a greater than usual rate.

Saatio said snowfall amounts vary throughout Houghton County, but it has been a challenge for the employees.

“It’s been quite a December,” he said.