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East Coast cities prepare amid dire weekend snow forecasts

This image provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center shows an early computer model forecasting the chances of a windy, strong sleet-snow storm hitting the East Coast this weekend, Jan. 22-23, 2016. Meteorologists say tens of millions of Americans from Washington to Boston and the Ohio Valley could be walloped by an end-of-the-week snowstorm. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via AP)

As weather forecasts point to the increasing likelihood of heavy snowfall along the East Coast this weekend, officials in several major cities say preparations are already underway to respond to the storm rapidly and efficiently.

With what the Washington Post described as a "severe, potentially historic" storm still at least three days away, the impact of the snow on cities from D.C. to Boston could be enormous or it could still fizzle out. After high-profile messes in cities that failed to adequately respond to predictions of such storms in recent years, emergency management agencies are not taking chances.

Early forecasts indicate up to two feet of snow or more could fall in some areas.

"This storm that's forming we're taking quite seriously," said Mike Dennehy, interim director of the Boston Public Works Department.

"We always expect the worst, based on last year" when the city faced record snowfall, he said, "and we prepare for the worst."

According to Dennehy, his department has focused efforts over the last eight months on improving its ability to remove snow and it is now better equipped for that. Following some snow in Boston in the last few days, he said workers are refilling salt trucks and getting resources in place while they await a clearer forecast from the National Weather Service tomorrow.

"A storm of this magnitudeis one of our biggest concerns," said Robert Maloney, director of the Baltimore Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. He said the focus in his city is on ensuring "continuity of operations" for government services and enabling police and firefighters can respond to emergencies.

"The continuity of operations is so important in an urban environment," he said. There is a lot of outreach and discussion between the government and the public to prepare for the storm.

Baltimore has not faced much snow so far this winter, which has advantages and disadvantages. The city has not depleted its salt supply, but Maloney fears the public will be skeptical of snow warnings when the season has been dry.

Despite the mild winter, officials throughout the region are confident they will be ready for whatever comes.

"While it hasn't snowed much this year, we have a track record of dealing with significant amounts of snowfall and have the necessary plan and protocols in place," said Samantha Phillips, Philadelphia's director of emergency management. "Our coordination has already started and will continue to increase throughout the week."

A spokesman for the New York City Office of Emergency Management would not comment on specific preparations being taken due to the uncertainty about the forecast, but he said "conversations have started already" between relevant agencies.

"The city's going to be ready to quickly mobilize when there's more certainty in the [storm] track, but we have our eyes and ears on it," he said.

Officials in Boston and Baltimore also indicated they have the resources to respond rapidly if the forecast changes.

"We can pull the trigger very quicklyAll the assets are really prepositioned," Maloney said. One priority at the moment is determining how many four-wheel drive vehicles the city has and making them available to police and firefighters to ensure that they can get to the scene of an emergency "no matter what, no matter how much snow."

Dennehy said the snow in Boston this past weekend served as "a good tune-up" for the city's response. Officials will be meeting with the contractors who handle 90% of the snow removal trucks on the streets Thursday when the forecast is firmer.

The fact that the storm is hitting on a weekend could make clean-up easier since commuters and school buses will not be on the roads until Monday. Dennehy also noted that early forecasts for next Monday and Tuesday indicate warmer weather, which will help clear up the snow.

Philadelphia officials are watching the forecasts and weather data closely to work with the best information available about an oncoming storm, Phillips said, but "we err on the side of caution when making decisions."

Mike Dunn, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Streets Department, which is the lead operational response agency, said the city has enough trucks and equipment to handle the predicted accumulation. The department's budget allocates $5 million for weather-related clean-ups, but more could be spent if it becomes necessary.

"These folks have learned their lessons in recent history," said Eric Holdeman, a former Washington State emergency management official. Mobilizing personnel and resources in advance is vital to an effective response.

Cities will still face difficult decisions as the storm approaches, though, and officials will have to make judgment calls. This is why having a strong relationship with National Weather Service representatives is important, according to Holdeman, but even their best forecasts can still turn out to be inaccurate.

"There is no absolute right or wrong...Sometimes you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," he said.

While governments say they are doing everything they can in advance of the possible storm, officials and emergency preparedness experts say the public should also be getting themselves ready.

"At this point, the public should be preparing to spend the weekend indoors," Phillips said.

"Try to stay off the roads if you can," Dennehy said. He also urged Boston residents to abide by instructions from the mayor's office in the event of a snow emergency.

"The best place to be is at home," Holdeman said. If you do have to drive in the snow, be sure to have supplies in case you get stranded. This includes water, blankets, flares, and a shovel to dig out of a snow bank if necessary.

"Winter storms are deceptive killers," said Steve Cain, a Purdue Extension disaster specialist. Deaths often attributed to car crashes and cardiac arrests during and after storms are directly related to the weather. He cautioned that getting on the road in a storm potentially puts yourself and emergency responders in jeopardy.

The forecast for this storm, which could involve both heavy snow and strong winds, also raises the prospect of power outages. Holdeman said city officials should be in contact with utility companies in advance and preposition resources to get the electricity running again.

In the meantime, Cain said people should be prepared to keep themselves warm for at least three days and have backup power for cellphones. He also warned people who set up portable generators to make sure they run them properly because operating them incorrectly can be fatal.

Cain also suggested downloading FEMA and Red Cross apps for phones to receive emergency updates.

The City of Baltimore makes a similar recommendation to have specific supplies on hand. Maloney said citizens should have a stockpile of enough water for three days, a battery-operated radio to get information, and a working flashlight.

"We focus on those three items because we view those as the most crucial," he said.

Officials are optimistic that the timing of the storm will allow them to clear the streets before the Monday morning rush hour, but there are many variables that will not be determined until Saturday or Sunday, including the amount of snow and the type of snow. If it is heavy, wet snow, it could be more difficult to move.

If they get hit with more than a foot of snow, Maloney and Dennehy said their cities will likely still be dealing with the aftermath on Monday.

"Until the forecast is more concrete, it is too early to comment on or be concerned about the potential for longer-term impacts," Phillips said of conditions in Philadelphia.

RESOURCES:

National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center: http://www.wpc.ncep.noaa.gov/

FEMA Winter Storms & Extreme Cold: http://www.ready.gov/winter-weather

Washington, D.C. District Snow Team: http://snow.dc.gov/

Baltimore City Snow Center: http://snow.baltimorecity.gov/

Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management: http://www.phila.gov/ready

New York City Severe Weather: http://www1.nyc.gov/site/severeweather/index.page

Snow in Boston: http://www.cityofboston.gov/snow/

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