A front-end loader works to clear North College Drive Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in north Cheyenne. Gov. Mark Gordon and the Laramie County Board of Commissioners issued emergency declarations Wednesday as a way to secure more resources and financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – The March winter storm that blanketed southeast Wyoming with two-and-a-half feet of snow was an expensive occurrence that cost municipalities across the state. But it’s still unclear whether it was enough to meet the $1 million threshold for Federal Emergency Management Agency relief, according to Wyoming Office of Homeland Security spokesperson Kelly Ruiz.

To be eligible, Laramie County needed to spend at least $357,000 responding to the storm, and the city of Cheyenne reached that amount on its own, spending a total of $598,000. The county is still compiling its final costs, though Interim Public Works Director Molly Bennett said upwards of $70,000 was spent on overtime for public works staff, and $88,000 was spent on equipment, based on FEMA’s rates.

“We can’t budget for a storm that comes every 50 years, so it’s great to have the reserves, and we’re hoping to get some of those dollars back that we can use to get to the next one,” Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins said.

The county had room in its budget to pay for its snowstorm response costs, while the city pulled about $475,000 from reserves after plowing through the remainder of its snow removal budget.

During the storm, rain quickly turned to wet, heavy snow – dumping a whopping 10 inches in just a four-hour period, with the total snowfall reaching 30.8 inches in Cheyenne. The nature of the storm caused problems with snow removal across the county, with equipment sliding off the road and snow too heavy for regular plows to move.

For the city, much of the snow removal equipment was used to escort emergency vehicles for the first 36 to 48 hours, helping with about 50 fire responses and 125 ambulance responses. With that, about two dozen private contractors were called in to help with snow removal in many residential areas, which cost close to $220,000 alone.

“The reason we have reserves, both personally and publicly, is for situations just like this,” Collins said.

Both the city and county had hefty bills for overtime expenses, as snow crews and emergency response personnel worked long days. Some firefighters stayed at work for three days, sleeping at the station since there was no way to get to and from work. The city paid almost $94,000 in personnel costs, which is a bit higher than the county’s spending of about $70,000 in the Public Works Department.

Cities, towns and counties across the southeastern portion of Wyoming experienced similar challenges during the storm, with the National Weather Service reporting high snowfall totals like 28.1 inches in Wheatland and 33 inches in Buford. Ruiz said the state is still working on compiling the total snowstorm costs from the different counties, as well as finishing the emergency declaration that has to be sent to the president for approval.

To assist in that process and mobilize additional resources if needed, both the Laramie County Board of Commissioners and Gov. Mark Gordon declared emergencies after the storm.

“The scale and intensity of this storm have caused severe impacts to our transportation infrastructure and agriculture producers,” Gordon said in a news release at the time. “As the scope of the situation unfolds, and with the possibility of flooding as temperatures warm, it’s imperative we make all our resources available to respond to the needs in our communities.”

If the federal emergency declaration gets approved, each county must select a 48-hour incident period for which to receive reimbursement from FEMA, which could be a challenge, considering the duration of the local response to the storm. Some Laramie County Public Works employees worked 12-hour days from Sunday to Friday, and both municipalities were dealing with the storm for most of the week.

According to Lynn Budd, Wyoming Homeland Security director, a number of expenses will qualify for reimbursement: city gaps in insurance payments for damaged buildings, overtime for snowstorm responders like firefighters and costs for contracted snow removal crews, among other expenses.

For those costs from the determined 48-hour period, municipalities would receive 75% federal reimbursement.

Looking to the next storm

While city and county leaders were putting together their final snow removal costs, they took the time to have a post-incident meeting with the Laramie County Emergency Management Agency to ensure that both entities will be better prepared for the next major emergency.

“It’s important after every situation you find yourself in, to sit down afterward, when the smoke clears, and think about ‘What did we do well,’ and then ‘What are the things that we might be able to do better the next time,’” Mayor Collins said. “So that was definitely important in a large event like this, where we were all hands on deck and lives depended on us getting things right.”

One of the shortcomings the city identified in its response was the lack of ability for emergency vehicles to directly communicate with snow removal crews, especially since the plows played such an essential role in police, fire and ambulances services in the first days of the storm response.

To solve that problem for next time, the Cheyenne Police Departments sixth-penny ballot request for new radios includes a number of portable radios that can be used by city crews. The city also purchased a new rotary snowplow, as lack of equipment was a barrier to fast snow removal.

On the county’s side, Bennett said the main focus in preparing for the next storm will be on personnel and preparing an emergency preparedness kit for the Archer Complex.

After snow came down fast and hard Sunday, she said some crews were snowed in at their facility Sunday night and into Monday, so they’re looking into stocking basic essentials like MREs, toiletries, towels, blankets and air mattresses.

“We want to make sure our operators have all the basic necessities covered, so they are better equipped to safely and efficiently clear the snow for our emergency personnel and citizens,” Bennett said.

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.

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