I heard the rumblings start Thursday night. And by the end of the weekend, I think I had heard it more than a dozen times. It went a little something like this:
“The city did a horrible job plowing the streets. You couldn’t get anywhere Thursday, and it wasn’t much better Friday. And when they did finally plow my street, they closed off my driveway, which I had spent two hours getting open.”
I see where the frustration comes from. It took me more than an hour to get to work Thursday morning, mainly because I live in a bit of a valley where the only way out of my neighborhood is uphill. That and someone at the top of one of the hills was out in the middle of the street with a snowblower when I was trying to get up it.
But that being said, I couldn’t disagree more.
For three years, as Operations Clerk for the City of Ames Public Works Department, I worked on a daily basis with the folks who plowed those streets. And if I learned anything from those years, it was that plowing snow is a lot more difficult than it looks.
The infamous Blizzard of 1996 — billed “the worst winter storm in a generation” — struck during my time with the city. And it couldn’t have struck at a worse time. Our crews in the Street Maintenance and Utility Maintenance divisions were already walking out the door when we got the call from our contracted meteorologists.
“You need to keep your crews in the shop; don’t send them home. There is a major winter storm developing right over Iowa and it looks like Ames is going to get the worst of it.”
How “major” were we talking, I asked, already knowing what the Streets superintendent was going to want to know.
“Ten to 12 inches, or more if this storm develops any thunderstorm characteristics.”
It wound up being a lot more, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Within 10 minutes, the crews were recalled, and the city was put on alert. This after those very same crews had just put in their full eight hours. And by the time most of them were back to the shop on the city’s east side, we already had more than an inch of accumulation on the ground.
By the time the plows were on the road, it was more than two inches. And by the time my shift ended, I was already snowed in (I lived in Boone, about 20 miles away), U.S. Highway 30 was already seeing some significant drifting.
By early evening, we were seeing snowfall rates of 3 to 4 inches per hour as “thunder snow” kicked in. Businesses closed early and then the highways were closed as Gov. Branstad declared a state of emergency, activating the Iowa National Guard to rescue stranded motorists.
Even Iowa State University cancelled classes the next day, which was a major news story at the time; ISU had cancelled classes only twice before. That was the wake-up call for the community, I think, because we stopped getting angry calls from folks who thought their street should’ve been plowed “at least once” in the middle of the storm.
But, eventually, the storm was more than the plows could handle, and we pulled them off, too. We all met for a midnight supper at the old Happy Chef restaurant at S.E. 16th Street and Dayton Avenue (the roads have all changed since then, and I don’t think the restaurant has been there for a good long time). I got to ride down from the shop in one of the plows.
That’s when I came to realize the snowplow operator has a much more technical job than just putting the plow down and driving around. It’s a very intense job that requires one eye on the road and one eye on the controls at all times.
For instance, you have to keep your eye on the temperature of your hydraulic system, or the plow will get stuck in whatever position it is in until it can thaw out.
Now granted, Ames is nearly four times the size of Newton, but the City of Ames doesn’t plow the streets and roads on the ISU campus; the university has its own fleet to do that. So, our focus was to plow our own streets.
Each snowplow operator had a map that showed the route he was supposed to take, as well as the priority levels of those streets. Until authorized by the supervisor, plows stayed on the top-priority arterial streets. Once those were open, and we knew they would stay open, we started opening up the residential streets.
The pushing of snow is really simple science. The mass of the truck, moving at a certain speed, will push the snow to its right and over the curb line. Go too fast, you throw it in someone’s sidewalk or front yard (and risk destroying the drive train if you hit something hidden under the snow). Go too slowly, the plow goes nowhere, and the driver gets a bone-jarring jolt (and risks breaking the plow).
Yes, that means a big pile of snow at the end of driveways, but that cannot be avoided, unless you would rather have it on your sidewalk.
The plow itself works just like an old farming plow. It cuts through snow and ice with a bit and uses the curved angle of the plow itself to push the snow off to the side. The bit does the hard work, which becomes even more difficult when the snow has hardened into ice.
Today’s plows use carbide bits, which are far stronger than their steel predecessors. That’s good for cutting through snow and ice, but also for severely damaging the pavement, especially at the edges or on joints.
You really don’t want to have to pay the taxes to support replacing or resurfacing all of the city streets on a yearly or biennial basis. That’s why most plow bits are kept “up” a little bit to leave a little snow behind. Usually, once the sun gets out, even when it’s colder than 32 F, the snow and ice left behind will melt.
Granted, that doesn’t always happen. But keep in mind that snowplow operators are driving on the same streets you are — usually for a much longer time than you are — and they would like to have a smooth street to drive on, too. Getting one in the winter is usually easier said than done.
Back in 1996, it took us 24 hours just to get the arterial streets opened (and the CyRide bus routes back up and running). Twelve hours later, we got the residential streets opened up. And, when it was all said and done, the city considered it a “heroic effort” (their words, not mine) and presented an award to everyone who worked on snow removal operations for that storm.
Now, flash forward to 2012. The Iowa Department of Transportation couldn’t keep I-35 or I-80 open for more than a few hours at a time until well into this past weekend. Des Moines city streets in residential areas were still impassible on Christmas Eve. Here in Newton, you could get pretty much anywhere in town by the end of the work day Friday.
If you think about it, our Public Works employees did a pretty good job. Maybe, just maybe, the people who don’t get much credit — and all of the hassle — this time of the year should instead be getting a big pat on the back right now.
So, “thank you” to the men and women who worked so hard to clear the roads after last week’s blizzard.
If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading it in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.
Bob Eschliman is editor of the Daily News. He may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at firstname.lastname@example.org via email.