News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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January 11, 2014

ARCTIC BLAST 2014: Monetary impact from last weekend’s storm good for some, bad for others

TERRE HAUTE — The snow may be slowly melting away, but the bills from last week’s mega winter storm continue to pile higher.

Local governments were forced to spend big sums in employee overtime and fuel expenses to attempt to keep roads clear while Wabash Valley residents paid in dozens of other ways, including furnace repairs, unplanned stays in motels and towing fees.

“It’ll be tens of thousands of dollars for this one,” said Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett, reflecting on the cost to the City. “It was a pretty big storm.”

Vigo County also faced big expenses from the storm, said Dan Bennett, superintendent of the county highway department. In addition to fuel and staffing costs, the county is also looking at five or six towing bills after a handful of plows became stuck during the storm, he said.

“The overtime for this thing is going to be considerable,” Dan Bennett said.

City and county snowplows were running 24 hours a day starting Sunday afternoon through Thursday, meaning lots of overtime pay and fuel expense. Final cost figures were not yet available, the mayor and the highway superintendent said.

Terre Haute sets aside enough money to pay for six big snow events each year, the mayor said. The storm that started a week ago counted for at least two storms, he added.

“This is a big one,” Mayor Bennett said. “I don’t think we’ve had one of these kinds of storms in 20 or 25 years.”

Despite the high cost of the storm, Bennett did not believe it would necessarily push the City over its budgeted snow and ice removal budget for 2014. Of course, that will depend on the weather. “We’ve got plenty of money in [the budget] right now to deal with this,” Bennett said. “But what else will happen the rest of this winter or next December?”

Dan Bennett, highway superintendent, said he plans to meet this week with the County Commissioners to discuss the costs of the storm. He’ll look at specific budget numbers “after we get out of the woods,” he said.

A bright side

While the storm has had a high price for local governments and residents, it gave a boost in business for a few area industries, including towing, furnace repair and hospitality.

“We’re running nonstop,” said Bob Miller, service manager for Paitson Bros. Heating and Air Conditioning, a Terre Haute-based business. The bitter cold Monday and Tuesday saw dozens of furnace failures that required emergency-level response, added Ethan Rayburn, general manager of the business.

“Obviously, it was bitterly, bitterly cold,” he said.

On Friday, Paitson’s Miller was working at the home of Jerry and Imogene Tiller in Terre Haute. Their furnace stopped working during the worst of the cold snap and Paitsons responded promptly to make the needed repairs, Jerry Tiller said. The company was back Thursday to follow up.

“We’ll get you through and keep your heat on for you,” Miller told the homeowner.

In 58 years of marriage, the Tillers had never experienced an emergency furnace call, Jerry said after shoveling the snow from his driveway. “Paitsons is really good about taking care of their customers.”

Towing services also saw a big increase in business as a result of the storm.

“We’ve been busy since Sunday,” said Debbie May of Mike’s Auto Wrecking and Towing in Terre Haute. The same was true of Peffley & Hinshaw Wrecker Service, which tows disabled semitrailers, said Paul May, owner. In addition to snow-related problems, the diesel fuel of some semitrailers became jelled during the deep freeze, leaving them stranded, he said.

Durr’s Towing of Terre Haute became very busy starting Tuesday, said Bob Durr, owner. On Monday, most people stayed home, he said. On Tuesday, they were trying to get around and often became stuck in the deep snow.

Durr’s was operating round-the-clock, Durr said Thursday. “It’ll be this way for another week.”

For area hotels, business was also brisk as some local residents lost heat or electricity and passing motorists were forced to exit Interstate 70.

The first 10 days of January are normally very slow in the hotel business, said Bill Burdine, area manager for the Holiday Inn – Terre Haute and the Springhill Suites. This storm changed that significantly. “It was good for us.”

Extra effort

The boost in sales may have been a welcome surprise for some local businesses, but it came at a steep price to those same firms, their owners and employees. Most people in those businesses got little sleep from Sunday through Wednesday as they went to extraordinary measures to serve their customers.

The Holiday Inn–Terre Haute and Springhill Suites both went to extra lengths to make sure customers had clean rooms and – more importantly – plenty to eat while stranded, Burdine said. The Holiday Inn provided free soup in its lobby for its guests and staff purchased supplies from a local wholesale business in order to make sure that specific food items – such as eggs – were on hand, he said. Hotel employees spent the night on-site to keep the kitchen and restaurant staffed, he added.

“We were able to take care of our guests well and make a lot of new friends,” Burdine said. On Monday, few area businesses were open, so the guests relied on the hotel for food, he said.

“We were the only place in the area that was taking care of our customers,” he said. “They couldn’t go anywhere. It was almost like going to a ski lodge.”

Early Monday morning, in sub-zero temperatures, Paitson’s Miller was more-than knee deep in snow on the roof of a customer’s home in southern Vigo County clearing an exhaust flu, he recalled. The company was also forced to use four-wheel drive pickup trucks to reach some remote customers, noted Rayburn.

“We were all over,” Rayburn said. The company serviced disabled furnaces in rural Parke, Vermillion, Edgar and other area counties, he said. “You realize what’s at stake when it’s 13 below,” Rayburn said. “We kind of threw away the time clock.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com

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