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Public works departments throughout the region have faced near-record amounts of snow and extended periods of frigid temperatures this year. Communities rely on these crews to manage numerous tasks such as keeping roadways and sidewalks cleared. Gerry Mitchel, Mike Rowlee, Corey Cook and Swede Larson of the Silver Bay Public Works Department stand at the ready to tackle any late season weather events. Photo by Ken Vogel

North Shore public works departments: Unsung heroes of winter

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Ken Vogel

Winter started early along the North Shore with the season’s first substantial snowstorm arriving on December 3. When the storm finally subsided two days later, Lake County volunteer weather reporters from the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network recorded snowfalls of 30-plus inches in some parts of the region.

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Record breaking frigid temps followed the heavy storm wreaking havoc with LP gas shortages, frozen water pipes and, of course, treacherous ice packed roads.

“Our biggest obstacle was the repetition of it all,” said Silver Bay Public Works Superintendent James “Swede” Larson. “We would just get done cleaning up from a storm and another one would be on top of us.” While keeping the streets clear became a full time job in itself, other tasks still required their attention such as is keeping the fire hydrants clear and accessible. Larson explained that extraordinary measures had to be taken this year in the interest of public safety.

“Usually we just blow or push the snow back from the hydrants but this year we had to haul it away; there was just no place on the boulevards to put it,” he said.

Due of the unusual amount of snow that accumulated in Silver Bay, Larson said that snow removal efforts had to be prioritized and crews abandoned sidewalk clearing as the winter progressed.

“We tried to keep the main ones open but there was just no room,” he said, “we had to use our big blower to move snow onto the sidewalks so we could plow the streets for the next snowfall.”

Although it was a remarkable year for the region, Larson said that Silver Bay was well prepared and remains at the ready.

“We usually use between 8–900 cubic yards of sand. This year we used about 200 cubic yards more than normal but we still have enough left over,” he assured. There are, however, some things that planning can’t prevent and Larson acknowledged that the long hours took a toll on personnel.

“We were ready to sleep through the night and get back to normal before last week’s storm,” he said. The City’s snow removal equipment seemed to stage its own protest. “We were not even done with two or three passes at the beginning of the last storm when the entire plow broke right off one of the trucks.”

The smaller community of Beaver Bay faced its own challenges in keeping streets clear.

“Being a small community, people have to understand we have a limited budget and equipment,” said Beaver Bay city councilor Tom Harris, adding that the City has a contract with John’s Sanitary Removal for after-hours care of its streets in winter, with public works crews handling daytime plowing and parking lot maintenance for the city center and water facility.

“We have one large plow truck that has a sander, but it is difficult to maneuver through the hills and curves of the city streets,” Harris said. Still he’s impressed with the dedication of the City’s public works crew.

“We had 2 new employees that weren’t experienced in plowing. Larry Hickman and Warren Carter went above and beyond in keeping the streets clear,” Harris said. The crew also had to attend to other issues caused by the severe winter such as frozen pipes, and water and sewer issues.

Two Harbors public works director Larry Fabini also recognized the extra effort by his staff and others who work to keep streets, roads and highways safe.

“Lake County is fortunate to have quality personnel including county, city and state highway departments,” he said, especially when the winter season goes from bad to worse. “We started with a wet, heavy snow followed by extreme cold. It caused an ice layer of several inches that never really melted.” Fabini credited the city for having good equipment, an asset that gave crews a fighting chance.

“The city has done an outstanding job of keeping our equipment current, also our mechanics did a great job of regular maintenance. That is why we didn’t have regular breakdowns even in tough conditions,” he said.

The City of Two Harbors has felt the financial pinch of Old Man Winter’s extended stay, however, with overtime for public works employees exceeding budgeted amounts, according to Fabini. Since January, for example, the City has paid $23,651 in overtime, significantly higher that its $10,000 budget, he said. Even with the overtime, crews had all they could handle and some snow removal projects had to be set aside.

“In most winters we try to do all of our corners and alley ends,” he said, “we never got to them this year; we just didn’t have the time.” And like neighboring communities, crews were faced with numerous other challenges as storm after storm pummeled the North Shore.

“With the packed ice from the first storm we went through more salt and sand than we ever used before. It was so cold it just never really melted,” he said, and along with the slippery base coat of ice on roadways, snowbanks didn’t recede as they usually do. “There were no real thaw periods; we were dealing with high banks all winter and had to take special efforts to keep fire hydrants clear.”

According to all of the local public works departments, winter was harsh, but there were bright spots, including a cooperative spirit among residents and crews alike.

“There had to be a lot of patience from the public and from the crews this year,” Fabini said, “the (snow) banks were high and the intersections icy, but people did a good job of slowing down and the guys on the plows went above and beyond.”

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