Denver Faces More Snow, and Grumbling

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As Denver prepares for the possibility of another major snowfall, Mayor John Hickenlooper is taking heat for his response to last week's blizzard. The mayor encouraged people to go sledding and enjoy hot cocoa while malls were closed down and most side streets remained packed in snow and ice. The Mile-High City could get another 18 inches of snow by Friday.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Another snowstorm moved in over Denver today and forecasters warn this one could dump a foot or more of new snow. That's on top of the icy snow left over from last week's blizzard.

That storm shut down the airport for two days and paralyzed the city. Denver's mayor has taken a political beating over the city's response to the blizzard. Many residents want to know why a city that is used to strong winter storms appeared to be caught off guard.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: All day, TV stations warned residents in the southern Rockies.

Unidentified Announcer: It's going to hit pretty hard so we need to get ready for that for the evening commute. It could be kind of tricky. Right now...

BRADY: The Colorado State Patrol offered advice for how to properly abandon your car in a snowstorm and suggested people consider leaving work early today.

Last week, it seemed few were prepared. Shopping malls were forced to close during the Christmas rush and flights in and out of one of the nation's busiest airports were cancelled for two days. It was during that time that Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper tried to look on the bright side.

Mr. JOHN HICKENLOOPER (Mayor, Denver): Well, from one to four, four of our park locations, we're going to have free hot chocolate. We're trying to get some sleds together, just so kids - you know, all the schools are closed and we thought it'd be nice if the kids that were close enough to the parks to get there could come and have sledding and at least enjoy the snow.

BRADY: Sledding was the last thing on the minds of people stranded in their homes. A city councilmember suggested the mayor should spend a bit more time on the problem and less on the silver lining. One letter to the editor in The Denver Post said the city was being made into a laughingstock.

A week later in downtown, Troy Kelly echoes the criticism.

Mr. TROY KELLY: Shutting down the fourth largest airport in the nation with snow that Chicago gets every day is quite ridiculous, especially during the holiday season.

BRADY: Others on their way to work this morning agreed and a few did direct their criticism at the mayor, but not Jan Pope.

Ms. JAN POPE: I don't think that's very fair. I mean, that was an unusual storm and there's no way that you can get that many people dug out. There's too many streets.

BRADY: But the widespread criticism forced the mayor and his Public Works Department to change their strategy.

(Soundbite of machinery)

BRADY: On Wednesday night before this latest storm, crews powered through neighborhood streets with front end loaders and dump trucks. In the past, Denver focused on main roads and left side streets for the sun to melt.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BRADY: Out at the airport, Mayor Hickenlooper says the problem last week wasn't keeping the runways clear. Most of the holdup was a lack of coordination between the airport and the airlines.

Mr. HICKENLOOPER: The airport plowed around those gates then the airlines pushed the snow back from around the planes, right back into what had already been plowed.

BRADY: Add to that the amount of snow the storm dropped, about two feet, and the 30 to 40 mile per hour winds. Airport Manager Turner West says crews just couldn't keep up.

Mr. TURNER WEST (Denver Airport): The plows would go through and a few minutes later you couldn't even tell they'd been there. So it was that kind of situation we were dealing with.

BRADY: West says getting rid of snow has been a problem. It all has to be trucked away. He says Denver may try something other airports have been doing for years: melting the snow.

But that's in the future. Another storm is happening right now and West says the airport has brought in more equipment hoping this time they can keep the planes flying.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

BLOCK: The political heat that Mayor Hickenlooper is feeling in Denver adds him to a list of many mayors who find weather a defining issue in their terms.

In Denver, people may remember Mayor Bill McNichols. The end of his career was hastened after a slow response to a huge snowstorm in 1982.

SIEGEL: Walk around Chicago, and just about everybody has heard about Mayor Michael Bilandic. He was mayor from 1976 to 1979 but he lost his job after a blizzard hit the city and residents blamed him when the snow was not removed quickly.

BLOCK: In New York City, Mayor John Lindsay was furiously booed in the borough of Queens when streets there went unplowed for weeks after a major storm and Robert, I remember talking to an aide of his who said he also committed a cardinal sin. When he went out there, he was wearing a suit and an overcoat. He was not dressed for the people.

SIEGEL: Two favorite lines of mine about mayors and snow. There's a famous line, perhaps hippogryphal, but it's widely attributed to Jasper McLevy, who was the Socialist mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, from 1933 to 1957. And when he was asked about, with no money for snow plows, who would take away the snow? He said or is said to have said, God put the snow there. Let Him take it away. Which was not too far away from what Marion Barry said. He was asked what his snow removal plan was and he answered, spring.

BLOCK: Words that live on.

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