As snowy winter drags on, Northeast struggles to cope

BOSTON/NEW YORK Wed Feb 5, 2014 5:45pm EST

1 of 16. Ice covers a tree branch in Central Park in the rain in New York February 5, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

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BOSTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The latest in a series of winter storms hit the United States on Wednesday, dropping wet, heavy snow in the Northeast states that disrupted travel and threatened supplies of salt needed to keep roads clear.

Officials in New York and New Jersey warned they were starting to run short of the rock salt used by road crews to keep ice from building up on highways and local roads, the result of the season's repeated storms.

"We have a salt shortage for some parts of the state, primarily New York City and the Long Island area, because there have been so many storms this season already," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters on a conference call. "The state does have a significant amount of salt on hand, we'll be shipping that salt around the state."

Cuomo declared a state of emergency for New York.

Neighboring New Jersey reported a similar salt shortage.

"We've had so many storms, one after another, that it definitely has put a very significant demand on salt," said Joe Dee, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

"Our supplies are dwindling," Dee added. "We have plenty for this storm. We're looking at some weekend storms and we have enough for that, but we're going to start to get low. We need some good weather and a chance to replenish our supplies."

As of January 26, New Jersey spent $60 million on snow removal, putting it on pace to break the record of $62.5 million spent last year, Dee said.

New York City has spread some 346,000 tons of rock salt on its roads so far this year, almost the total for last winter, said Belinda Mager, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Sanitation. The city has spent $57.3 million on snow removal so far this winter, putting it on track to top last year's spending.

Most U.S. states and major cities do not try to set an upper limit on spending for snow removal but authorize agencies to spend what is necessary and count on legislatures to cover the cost.

"Before I became governor, I never saw winter in budgetary terms, but now I do," Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told local WBZ radio, adding that he was counting on lawmakers to fund the state's rising snow-removal and salt tab.

Some commercial suppliers have run out of rock salt.

"We're just continuing to get crushed by these storms. With major rock salt shortages, it's starting to get scary out there," said Anthony Scorzetti, a hardware and paint manager for Braen Supply in Wanaque, New Jersey. "I have people calling from all parts of the East Coast looking for it, and we just have nothing."

In Connecticut, the Department of Transportation budgeted about $30 million for winter storms, said spokesman Judd Everhart.

"We are bumping up against that number right now because of the number of storms and the overtime and materials required to deal with them," he said. "This is the 11th storm of this season for us."

But Everhart said if the department runs over budget it can move money from other accounts so "there is never a situation where we would 'run out.'"

Bruce Small, 58, an aircraft mechanic from Milford, Connecticut, called the local road conditions "horrible."

"Everyone was skidding all over the place," he said, calling the wet, heavy snow storm "miserable, brutal."

More than 300 traffic accidents were reported on major roadways and side streets throughout the state, with one that was serious but with no fatalities, according to Connecticut State Police.

New Yorkers were grabbing up bags of salt to clear the sidewalks, said Reshaun Smith, a worker at a Rite Aid store in Brooklyn, where a big stack of salt bags was nearly sold out.

"We get it in, and as soon as there's a storm, it's gone," she said.

Almost a million homes and businesses were without power in the Northeast on Wednesday afternoon following severe snow and ice storms overnight, according to local power companies.

The hardest-hit state was Pennsylvania with more than 720,000 customers out.

Other affected states were Maryland, Arkansas, New Jersey, West Virginia, Kentucky, Delaware, New York and Ohio.

The weather hit area airports hard, with roughly half the departing flights canceled out of Newark Liberty International, LaGuardia Airport and Boston's Logan International, according to FlightAware.com, an online flight tracking site.

Throughout the United States, 2,767 flights were canceled on Wednesday, FlightAware said.

(Additional reporting by Edward Krudy and Scott DiSavino in New York, Richard Weizel in Connecticut, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Chizu Nomiyama and Gunna Dickson)

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