Midwestern storm didn't break the bank but will be costly

2014-01-10T08:00:00Z 2014-10-24T14:22:16Z Midwestern storm didn't break the bank but will be costlyBy Ken Leiser kleiser@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8215 stltoday.com

It didn’t break the bank.

But this week’s paralyzing storm will cost the St. Louis region plenty once the final bills roll in for shuttering businesses, canceling thousands of airline flights, and pushing snow to the sides of area streets and highways, government officials and economists say.

Most public agencies throughout the area said it is still too early to put a price tag on the storm that dropped more than 10 inches of snow and sent temperatures diving below zero.

The Missouri Department of Transportation said this week’s snow fight is expected to cost from $1 million to $1.5 million in the St. Louis district alone. Normally, the region’s winter operations run about $4.5 million to $5 million, said Becky Allmeroth, MoDOT maintenance engineer in the St. Louis district.

Across Missouri, MoDOT has spent $30 million on winter operations so far this season, said Bob Brendel, special assignments coordinator for the department. On average, MoDOT spends $42 million per winter for snow removal.

The heaviest shot of snow began late Saturday night and continued through Sunday, giving way to bone-chilling, subzero temperatures on Monday. A second wave dropped another 1½ inches of snow Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

Staying ahead of the snowstorm ate up much of MoDOT’s salt supplies locally, forcing the agency to request a salt shipment from the northeastern Missouri, Allmeroth said. The agency is purchasing more salt to replenish local supplies.

Statewide, MoDOT’s salt supplies sit at about 35 to 40 percent of the normal winter inventory.

St. Louis County crews used $1.1 million worth of materials, including rock salt and calcium chloride, and logged $293,000 in labor costs, according to Dave Wrone, spokesman for the County Department of Highways and Traffic. Fuel costs ran about $46,000.

The department's $31 million operating budget pays for winter operating expenses.

In St. Charles County, St. Peters spent an estimated $150,000 to $175,000 battling last weekend’s storm, including salt, chemicals, labor and fuel.

St. Peters had 5,000 tons of salt ready for use at the beginning of the winter — a supply that’s supposed to last two years, said David Fults, a spokesman for the city.

“We’ve used about half of it already,” Fults said. “That’s about a year’s worth in two months.”

In Illinois, the highway departments of Madison and St. Clair counties said cost estimates for recent snow removal work were not available. However, both agencies said salt supplies were adequate.

“We have enough salt on hand right now to handle a couple more snow events, with a fresh shipment of salt due for delivery next week,” Jim Fields, head of the St. Clair County Highway Department, said Thursday.

His counterpart in Madison County, Mark Gvillo, said the department’s storage sheds were full. “So far, we’ve been able to replace the salt after each snow event,” Gvillo said. “We try to keep the sheds full so we don’t run into a problem that some departments had a few years back when the river froze and fresh shipments of salt could not get through.”

TRAVEL COSTS

Between New Year’s Day and Monday, storm-related flight delays and cancellations had cost U.S. air travelers and airlines an estimated $1.4 billion, according to MasFlight, which analyzes airline operations data in the U.S. and Canada.

Airlines nationally have canceled nearly 20,000 flights since Jan. 1, said Helane Becker, an airline analyst at Cowen and Company in New York. Storm costs so far in 2014 will likely cost the airline industry $50 million to $100 million, and “probably closer to the higher end of that range,” Becker said.

The figure takes into account that airlines do not pay landing fees or fuel costs for flights that are canceled and pay lower labor costs, Becker said.

At Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, the most recent storms cost about $70,000 in worker overtime and materials costs, said airport spokesman Jeff Lea.

Nearly 500 flights were canceled because of the storms, but Lea said it is too early to calculate the loss of concession sales or lost landing fees after flights were canceled.

PRODUCTIVITY AND PIPES

Private businesses lost, too, as a result of the storm, because of lost sales and employee productivity. For example, the MX movie theater at 618 Washington Avenue downtown announced Thursday that it was closed until at least Sunday because of a broken sprinkler line, likely due to the cold weather.

But there are no surefire metrics to measure the extent of the losses because of the weather.

“It would certainly seem to be in the millions of dollars,” said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. of Chicago. “Maybe the tens of millions.”

Nationwide, one estimate from business weather intelligence company Planalytics puts the cost of the polar vortex that gripped much of the country during the past week at $5 billion.

Challenger likened the temporary business closures to snow days for schoolchildren. Companies operated on skeleton crews. Productivity losses, he said, were offset by employees who worked from home.

But Howard Wall, an economist at Lindenwood University, said that while the economic effects of the winter storm are measurable, they would likely be “pretty small.”

Production is often delayed, not lost, he said. Workers who miss a day or two at the office will return to the job and ultimately catch up on their tasks.

“The economy works these things out,” he said.

The snow and cold proved a boon for area plumbers.

Will Oberkrom, manager of Maplewood Plumbing in St. Louis, said his company received more than 300 calls from Monday to Thursday afternoon for burst or frozen pipes. Typically the company gets one call a week for a burst pipe around this time of year.

“We had calls at every hour through the night,” he said, noting by Tuesday it was hard for anyone to find a plumber that could add another house call.

Most had already called four to five different plumbers, who were already booked up, said Oberkrom. On Wednesday night he said he was working on service calls through 11 p.m. A service call typically costs about $150 per hour in labor alone.

In most cases pipes were bursting because of poor insulation in crawl spaces and garages. In others, Oberkrom said, homeowners found water in their ceilings and assumed it was a burst pipe —when, in fact, roofs were leaking under the heavy snow.

The storm’s cost to households is also measured in heating bills. Laclede Gas reports Monday resulted in the largest single-day of natural gas consumption in more than 17 years.

The forecast calls for temperatures to rise today, peaking at 47 degrees with a high probability of rain throughout the day.

The Associated Press and Steve Giegerich, Paul Hampel, Mark Schlinkmann, Nancy Cambria and Leah Thorsen of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.


EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story attributed the St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic's $31 million operating budget to the wrong agency.

Ken Leiser is the transportation writer at the Post-Dispatch. Read his Along for the Ride column online and every Sunday in the newspaper.

Copyright 2015 stltoday.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

ACTIVATE YOUR DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION

Get weekly ads via e-mail