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Region digs out after record spring snowstorm
April 20, 2018

By Ivan Raconteur
Editor

WRIGHT COUNTY, MEEKER COUNTY, MCLEOD COOUNTY, CARVER COUNTY, HENNEPIN COUNTY, MN – Weather forecasts leading up to the weekend of April 14-15 were dire, but because it was so late in the season, some people wondered if it was all hype.

They got their answer when the storm blew in Friday and continued to dump record-breaking amounts of snow on the region throughout the weekend.

According to the National Weather Service, the 14.9 inches of snow that fell on Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport between Friday morning and Sunday evening set a record for largest April snowstorm in the Twin Cities.

The prior record was set in 1983, when 13.6 inches of snow fell in the metro.

Last weekend’s storm was 12th on the overall list of snowstorms in the Twin Cities (for all months, not just April).

Maintenance crews battled strong winds and dropping temperatures, as well as ice beneath the heavy, wet snow.

The wind caused drifting and reduced visibility, resulting in travel advisories across the region.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled at MSP Airport during the storm, and schools were delayed or closed Monday morning as cleanup efforts continued.

Plow operators also had to contend with cars parked on city streets, because winter parking rules in many communities end early in April.

Many events were postponed or cancelled. For example, a concert by the US Air Force Mid-America Concert Band scheduled for April 14 at the Dassel-Cokato Performing Arts Center was cancelled and could not be rescheduled.

Other events, such as the Holy Trinity Spring Fling in Winsted, went on as planned.

Following is a summary of how the storm affected some local communities.

Winsted

In Winsted, over the duration of the winter weather event, it took approximately 110 hours of city staff time from six employees (three full time and three part time) to clear city streets.

The city does not officially track snowfall. However, public works staff estimated the snowfall at approximately 16 to 18 inches, depending upon the area of town.

The late-season snowstorm, coupled with the expiration of the city’s winter parking rules, which end March 31 annually, required public works staff to plow around several vehicles parked on city streets, which complicated and delayed the snow removal process.

Additionally, due to the amount of snow and its heavy or wet nature, city staff noticed an increase in resident comments related to mailbox damage (i.e., heavy snow rolling off the snowplow and damaging the mailbox) – four in total. Typically, the city receives zero or one such comment per winter, noted City Administrator Dan Tienter.

The brush site in Winsted normally opens in April, but due to the snow, it will not open until further notice.

Lester Prairie

Obviously, the snowstorm provided many challenges this past weekend, commented Lester Prairie Community Development Coordinator Adam Birkholz, adding that the public works staff did a great job clearing the streets.

“We have faced some challenges all winter because we are a bit short-staffed, and snow amounts like this past weekend only make that situation worse,” Birkholz said.

In Lester Prairie, approximately 45 hours of labor were spent on snow removal during the course of the weekend.

An additional challenge in Lester Prairie was the lack of locations to which the snow from the business district could be hauled. This is the result of thawing fields where the snow is typically hauled, according to Birkholz.

“Otherwise, our operations went smoothly, considering the snow amounts and the ice under the snow,” Birkholz commented.

He expressed appreciation to the residents of Lester Prairie for the patience and cooperation displayed over the weekend while staff worked to remove the snow.

Mayer

The City of Mayer spent a good 24 hours cleaning up after this storm (plowing, salting, hauling snow, etc.), noted Kyle Kuntz of the Mayer public works department.

Kuntz said the main challenge that workers faced was the amount of snow that fell in such a short amount of time, combined with the 50 MPH wind gusts.

“Pushing that large amount of wet, heavy snow took multiple passes up and down the road, especially where there were 3-foot drifts,” Kuntz said. “Also, the thin layer of ice that was under the snow made traction impossible, and getting stuck very easy.”

The city’s snow plow contractor had to haul in an additional piece of heavy equipment in order to make the process a little easier.

“On average, the City of Mayer spends about five hours cleaning up after a 6- to 8-inch snowfall, so by no means was this a typical snowstorm,” Kuntz said. “The main positive that came from this storm is that it looks like it will be the last one for the season!”

Waverly

Jim Woitalla, the City of Waverly’s maintenance supervisor, has been plowing the white stuff for 20 years, and has learned the type of snow falling can directly impact how plowing needs to be completed.

During last weekend’s blizzard, Woitalla had four plows out working in Waverly beginning at 6:30 p.m. Saturday and running until 3 a.m. Sunday.

His crew also was out plowing Sunday night, beginning at 10 p.m. and running until 7 a.m. Monday.

Each time the crew goes out, they need an hour of set-up time to shuffle equipment around and get ready to hit the roads.

When not plowing, Woitalla spent his weekend watching the weather radar, attempting to determine when there might be a break in the storm to allow his crew to work more efficiently.

“All snows are different,” he said. “How we treat one snow is not how we treat another.”

Last weekend’s snow dump, for example, was a typical very heavy spring snow.

Woitalla said when you push that kind of snow, it moves “kind of like a mudslide.” And it keeps moving once the plow has gone by.

Sometimes, the weight of the snow is what causes residents’ mailboxes, planters, or trash receptacles to receive a snow blanket – not the plow itself.

Woitalla compared getting hit with spring snow to standing in the ocean when a wave hits you.

Additionally, the heavier weight of spring snow causes it to collect on the front of the plow, and then the plow gets stuck.

Woitalla pointed out that spring is the worst time to have to plow, because roads are softer at that time. His crew also tries to use as little salt as possible.

“When the frost is coming out and softening the road surface, putting the weight of the plow and salt on the road could damage it,” Woitalla said.

Woitalla said it is important for the person plowing to wear their seat belt, since manhole covers may be higher than the road in some spots, and cause a pretty significant impact if hit.

“Roads move up and down,” Woitalla reported, “but manholes don’t move.”

He recalled a person working in Montrose over a decade ago who went through the windshield of the payloader he was driving because he hit a lifted manhole.

Woitalla said even with a foot pressed all the way down on the accelerator, a typical top speed for plow equipment is approximately 22 miles per hour.

The fact that winter parking restrictions ended April 1 in Waverly caused some headaches for those plowing there April 14 and 15. Since cars parked on the road were no longer required to move off-street, plow drivers had to move around them, leaving awkward unplowed areas.

Woitalla knows, in an ideal world, roads would be spotless quickly after a snowfall.

“People want 24-hour clean roads, but that would require more staff, more equipment, and more storage. It’s not just about adding another person,” he commented.

In fact, Woitalla said, if the city council were to approve it, he wishes citizens would ask to ride along with a plow driver sometime.

“It would be a good education on how long it does take to plow,” he said.

Woitalla is aware most people don’t realize all that goes into clearing streets.

“Nobody knows everything about someone else’s job,” he said.

He ruefully admits he knows there is no way his plow crew will ever be able to please everyone.

For example, in one neighborhood, a citizen did not want any plowing completed at night, because the plow’s back-up beepers awakened her. The person right next door to her, however, wanted the roads totally plowed by 3:15 a.m., so he could easily get to work.

Woitalla encourages citizens to look at the big picture. “We really concentrate on doing the right thing for the city as a whole,” he said.

Howard Lake

Howard Lake public works staff began some preliminary plowing Sunday evening at about 8 p.m. for a few hours, according to Aurora Yager, assistant city administrator. Monday, they did the majority of plowing and clearing snow from 2 a.m. to noon.

Tuesday, one member continued clearing snow from 1 a.m. to 11 a.m. Another member worked 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The final bit of snow clearing, including sidewalks, was finished Wednesday morning. (The snow was too wet with the temperature Tuesday to blow out the sidewalks. Staff started early Wednesday to blow the sidewalks off when it was still cold.)

Howard Lake used its two plow trucks to clear the streets, and also had a third employee using a payloader to clear parking lots.

“The public works crew waited to do major plowing until early Monday, since many crews in the surrounding areas were being called off due to the dangerous weather. When the county started clearing roads again, so did we,” Yager noted.

Two people worked on Sunday. All three public works staff members were working Monday. Two people worked Tuesday.

“I estimate that we are already at 50 total hours of labor put into the project,” Yager stated.

“Even if we are past the winter parking restrictions, if there is a snow event, everyone should remove their vehicle from the street so crews can get through to clear everything,” she noted.

“Additionally, this time of the year, the snow is wetter and heavier. This makes snow removal much more difficult,” Yager stated. “It’s more difficult to clear – the weight of the snow pushes back on the equipment, so it’s harder to drive and remove. Patience is appreciated as we take our time to remove the massive snow coverage across town.”

Cokato

“We actually began the process Friday evening at 9 p.m. When the rain began to turn to sleet, we went and pre-treated the intersections around town,” stated Cokato Public Works Director Jeff Degrote.

“The second phase started at noon on Saturday, when we went out and started to keep the driving lanes open around town. That was the main focus at the time, to at least have them open in case of emergencies. This step is different than the normal curb-to-curb plowing that we do when snowfalls are less significant.

“The next phase was started Sunday morning at 2 a.m. This is when we started a full curb-to-curb cleanup along with doing the downtown business district. At about 6 a.m., we once again got hit with heavy snowfalls. At that point, the residential areas became a driving-lane priority once again. This was not done curb-to-curb, because of the poor visibility, and too many near collisions that were taking place with vehicles.

“Monday morning, we once again went out at 2 a.m. and started a full curb-to-curb snow removal, along with a downtown business district snow removal. Once that was done, we turned our focus on a stretch of sidewalk from Jack’s to the Marketplace, as that stretch is used by many people from the apartments on that side of town to get groceries. We finished up with that about 11:30 a.m. that morning.

“Tuesday’s focus was to remove all the snow along Hwy. 12, so residents didn’t have to walk on Hwy. 12. Our next priority was to start hauling out the many snow piles around town. This may take a few days, so if the piles are not removed as soon as some people may want, we ask that they be patient.

“Every snowfall is a different challenge, depending on the amount and the heaviness of it,” Degrote commented. “To be honest, this time of year, it’s usually a bigger headache, given that there’s freezing going on under the snow, which makes it that much more dangerous and difficult to remove.”

Degrote said there were reports of residents saying their mailboxes were hit by plows. “In most cases it is not the public works department that hits them,” Degrote said. “Rather, it comes from mailboxes that are not installed correctly and are not meeting the [required] setback from the back of the curb. Others have settled forward over the years as well, and recently, many mailboxes and poles are now plastic. They cannot withstand the weight of the heavy snow that we get this time of year. He noted that if there is physical evidence to show that a mailbox was struck by city equipment, the city will be glad to fix or replace it.

“There were a lot of cars parked around town on the street, both in the residential and business area, that really didn’t need to be,” Degrote commented. “I think the city needs to look into extending the ‘no parking on city streets’ from April to the first of May. [Currently, the city’s winter parking rules expire April 1].

Degrote said people should just use common sense when meteorologists predict these heavy amounts of snow a week in advance, and have their vehicles off the streets.

Dassel

Dassel has a total of three people who plow; two on plow trucks, and one a pay loader, Dassel Public Works Director Troy Zwilling stated.

“We try to keep the roads as clear as possible to ensure public safety,” Zwilling commented. “The best time to be out is when there is little or no traffic. However, when it snows like it did last weekend, we are out plowing most of the day and night.

“I don’t have a ton of experience as a plow truck driver,” Zwilling acknowledged. “However, I am learning from two of the best guys, Walt Hanson and Jay Evjen. Last weekend was a learning experience for me, and I will only get better. I guess you could call me a rookie.”

Zwilling said he wishes the residents could have more patience sometimes. He noted trucks break down or get stuck, and cars are parked on the road when they should be off the road. All these things factor in on how timely the job is done.

“We do our best. It rarely goes as planned, but that’s our job,” he commented.

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