City responds to criticism of handling of storm
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Many people spent several hours stuck in traffic on Highway 50 following a historic storm on Christmas weekend. The City of South Lake Tahoe activated an Emergency Operation Center in response to the storm but some South Lake residents criticized the city, saying they didn’t do enough and they acted too late.
“Between the snow, Caltrans’ failure to manage highway reopenings and excessive holiday tourist traffic which has become our new normal, we saw the worst traffic situation on Highway 50 in many years,” said resident Scott Robbins during public comment at the Tuesday Jan. 4 city council meeting.
“Our one main road reduced to a solitary snow-choked lane in each direction became entirely impassable,” Robbins continued. “This wasn’t simply a matter of inconvenience, of grocery running low, fuel supplies running out… this was a public safety failure.”
During the meeting, City Manager Joe Irvin responded to the criticism and commended his staff for the work they did during the storm.
“We have a stellar team of public safety and public works employees,” Irvin said.
He specifically thanked snow plow drivers and street cleaning teams, stating that while there were berms and delays, they worked non-stop to clear the roads.
“Our local roads were accessible and our emergency vehicles could get anywhere in the city and that is the number one priority during this situation,” Irvin said.
Anush Nejad, Public Works Director said that during the two big storm events in December, the snow plow drivers were working 12 hour shifts, so that there was clearing 24 hours a day. During the first storm, which started Dec. 13, the 24 hour services lasted for five days.
During the second storm, which started Dec. 21, the 24 hour services lasted for 14 days.
The city is responsible for about 256 miles of roads. Standard operating procedure is to focus on plowing the 17 miles of arterial roads first, then the 42 miles of connector roads and finally the approximately 200 miles of local roads. They first plow one lane, then later go back to clear another lane and widen the road as well as the bike and walking paths. Finally, they snow blow to clear berms and expand the roads.
Nejad said going forward, he will be working with Tahoe Transportation District and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to create a regional traffic information system.
Robbins is not the only one to criticize the city’s actions.
In a letter to the editor, resident Scott Ramirez said, “The City of South Lake Tahoe MUST establish policies and procedures for shutting down access to non-residents when emergencies arise and prioritizing access for essential services such as gas deliveries and the stocking of stores. The ability of residents to get to those supplies and be able to return home in less than a full day’s time also needs to be addressed.”
In response to comments from community members about the swiftness (or lack thereof) of the city’s actions, Irvin pushed back, saying that the EOC was in place and activated before the traffic became a problem.
Shortly after the city announced the EOC activation, the State of Nevada declared a State of Emergency. One public commenter during the council meeting said the city should’ve also declared an emergency.
“Proclamations for these are normally made when there is actual threatening disaster conditions posing extreme peril to our community,” Irvin said. “In my humble opinion, there was no need for us to declare an emergency for this situation… Was there a lot of traffic? Yes. Was it a nuisance? Yes.”
Irvin added that nobody was injured during the event. The city worked closely with Caltrans and California Highway Patrol to make sure Barton employees were bused to and from work. Fire Chief Clive Savacool added they were in constant contact with those entities to make sure patients could be transferred to or from the hospital and that gas and food trucks were given priority and escorted over Echo Summit.
The whole fire department, including Savacool worked 24 hours a day to do wellness checks and make sure people were safe.
“There was no failure of public safety,” Savacool said.
Police Chief Dave Stevenson also thanked his staff for their hard work during the storm, saying that dispatch fielded a “massive amount,” of phone calls. The community service officers were moved to day shift to focus on parking issues in tourist areas of town and public works used their loader to pull cars that were stuck on the roads, when tow trucks were in limited supply.
Robins also suggested a lockout or refund on all hotels for two days and 50% allowance on the 3rd and 4th days.
“When we do switch to an emergency operations mode, protection of lives is our number one focus, preservation of property is our second and protection of the environment is right there with that and we operate and underscore all of those foundations of the EOC to ensure we can manage any impacts that are thrown at those issues, and I feel like we did a great job of doing that,” Irvin said.
Irvin finished his statement by encouraging residents to call him at (530) 542-6000 with any questions or suggestions on how to make the situation better in the future.
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