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Thank El Nino for the winter that wasn't

March 20, 1998

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Long-term forecasts predicted El Nio would make this winter's weather warmer and wetter than normal in the Tri-State area.

The big question was whether the precipitation caused by the warming phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean would come in the form of snow or rain.

Question answered.

Spring begins at 2:55 p.m. today, and area residents can look back on what was the second-warmest winter in 100 years. Despite producing the 10th smallest snowfall total, this winter also was one of the wettest ever.

"Had that all been snow, we would have been up to our roofs," said Rachel Nichols, a spokeswoman for Whitetail Ski Resort, which took a beating this winter.

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The Mercersburg, Pa., resort lost about 25 skiing days due to warm weather, Nichols said. Last winter also failed to produce optimum skiing weather.

"It's certainly been our worst season in the seven years we've been open," Nichols said. "We're kind of hoping for the law of averages for next year."

For many residents, however, this winter was a joy.

Temperatures averaged 38.4 degrees in December, January and February, and only 13.2 inches of snow fell during the entire season.

"One time, we had snow that had to be moved off the drive," said Broadfording Road resident Donald Robinson. "It's been a really nice winter, I think."

Robinson, 67, said he walks on a treadmill inside his home when the weather is cold. When it is warm, he said he walks outside near his home.

"It's a lot nicer," he said.

For businesses that operate outdoors, the winter of 1997-98 was a mixed bag.

Contractors enjoyed the warmth, but the 13.54 inches of rain that fell between December and February delayed work.

"Men work more comfortably and probably more productively" when the weather is mild, said Michael G. Callas, president of the Hagerstown-based Callas Contractors. "Also, we do not have to shovel snow and ice."

Callas said excessive rain soaks the ground, and that can delay work.

"Sometimes, it's easier to handle snow than all this rain," he said.

James Rock, president of GRC General Contractors in Zullinger, Pa., said about 75 percent of his work this winter was indoors.

For those working outside, Rock said the rain caused the most problems for contractors who started jobs in January or February. But those who had already gotten a start on construction in November and December were more fortunate, he said.

Contractors who built in remote areas also experienced problems.

Greg Shiley, who runs Shiley Construction Co. in Inwood, W.Va., said his costs soared this winter because his concrete trucks could not get to a lot of sites.

As a result, he said he had to pump the concrete into about 12 percent of his jobs. During a normal winter, he said he has to pump concrete to a construction site at about 2 percent of the job sites.

The added expense of the process cannot be passed on to customers, he said.

"You just end up spending more to stay in business," he said. "We're better off when it's cold."

Rain-drenched ground makes it impossible to dig foundations for homes, which slows down business, Shiley said. He said his business is down by about 50 percent as a result.

"It's been a lot of mud," he said.

Last month was the second-wettest February on record. The month before was the third-wettest January. Nearly all of the precipitation has been rain.

Hagerstown weather observer Greg Keefer recorded only trace amounts of snow in February.

"That hasn't happened too many times," he said.

So far, 14.41 inches of precipitation has fallen in 1998. By this time in 1996, 54.6 inches of snow - which equals 14 inches of precipitation - had fallen. That year set a record for precipitation.

"I think we're actually ahead of that year already," Keefer said.

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