Far away from the satellites and fancy radar devices tracking meteorological events, armies of drivers saddling giant snowplows and dump trucks brimming with road salt worked nonstop to keep the region’s highways and streets passable Wednesday.
Whiteouts, unnerving claps of snow thunder and cookie-dough-like snow hiding patches of ice were hardly enough to halt this hardy breed of workers who relish what winter throws their way.
Crews from the state Department of Transportation to town highway departments managed to keep the roads across Erie and Niagara counties relatively clear Wednesday, even as snow fell at a rate of up to an inch an hour during the height of the blizzard.
A few minor accidents were reported in the area, but for the most part the roads were passable, and no one got stuck.
Michael Grisanti, a state Department of Transportation supervisor who oversees more than two dozen workers and nearly as many pieces of snow removal equipment at the Elm-Oak and Depew DOT shops, gleefully ticked off a list of how crews managed to get one-up on the storm:
• Carbide steel blades were replaced on worn plows.
• Tanks containing 300 to 400 gallons of magnesium chloride, a fluid blended into the salt that causes it to melt quickly when it hits the road, were filled to capacity.
• Hydraulic fluid levels were topped off to ensure plows and salt-spreading hoppers functioned properly.
• Even the washer fluid was topped off.
“We started preparing on Tuesday, making sure all the equipment was up and ready for the road, and at the end of our shift we were ready to go,” Grisanti said.
The fact that the storm hit later than expected, he added, allowed crews to get out early Wednesday morning to salt roads before heavier snow started falling at about 7:30 a.m.
“We caught a second break with the school and business closings,” said Grisanti, a 30-plus-year veteran of snow removal. “There was less traffic and that enabled our plows to get the roads initially cleared.”
Grisanti noted the outrageous weather shift that preceded the storm. “How about this weather? Tuesday, we had the doors open to our garage. It was nearly 50 degrees. Guys were in T-shirts, and the sun was shining. Today we’re in blizzard conditions.”
Throwing up his hands, Grisanti cheerfully explained, “It’s Buffalo.”
The Town of Tonawanda’s snow-clearing arsenal included 20 plows and front-end loaders Wednesday, said Highway Superintendent William E. Swanson.
“We started first thing this morning as soon as it hit around 6 a.m., and we’re going to go around the clock,” he said. “The morning shift is on until 6 p.m., followed by another shift from 6 p.m. until midnight and an overnight shift from midnight until 7:30 a.m., Swanson said, adding that he would probably put in between 16 and 18 hours.
“Because it’s during the day there’s a lot of vehicles out there,” he said. “We tell our drivers to go a little slower, take it easy. You’ve got a lot of parked cars. Just watch the traffic and take your time.”
The department is responsible for clearing 414 lane-miles of town-owned roads and 63 miles of Erie County roads in the town.
Vehicles constantly on the road at times have needed quick repairs. A truck Wednesday morning was taken out of service after it hit a concrete slab, damaging the beam and cables that secure the plow’s wing. Mechanics were fixing the damage, hoping to have it back on the road by mid-afternoon.
“Especially with a snowstorm, any of our snow equipment we try to get out as quick as possible,” Swanson said.
Hamburg Highway Superintendent Tom Best had his crews out in full force, but he was not impressed by the storm.
“It’s snowing out,” he said when contacted by a reporter. “This is no big deal. The news media is jumping on it. It’s the same thing we’ve been getting last five months: snow, snow, snow!”
He’s already warned the Hamburg Town Board there should be enough road salt for this winter, but if November and December are snowy, he’ll be asking for money to be transferred into the highway account.
And since the storm was predicted well in advance, Hamburg crews, like others around the area, were ready at 7 a.m. Wednesday, and were planning to work through the night.
“We’ve been out since the minute it started snowing and we’ll be out until the minute it stops snowing,” Best said. “Hopefully by seven in the morning we will have all our roads partially or fully clear.”
Two things helped in keeping up with the snow. Schools closed and many businesses shut down or closed early, and driving advisories all combined to reduce the number of cars on the road.
And “for once,” he said, “the weatherman seems to be right on.”
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