It’s 3 a.m. and Doug Pratt, with coffee in his mug, is ready to plow the streets of Nevada … again.
Last week, early on the morning of Feb. 20, the Nevada street crew was back out in snowplows and pickup trucks with blades, clearing city streets and alleyways as another winter storm added more measurable white stuff to the city landscape. Unbeknownst at the time, they would also be out a lot on the weekend, dealing with a precipitation mixed-bag of rain to ice to snow. It’s been a winter that has totally destroyed the street department’s overtime budget, and their day-to-day “normal” schedules.
“My biggest day (this winter) was 15 hours straight,” Pratt said. But during many of these long drawn-out snow events, Pratt said he and the other members of the city street department will stop in at the city shop to regroup. “We get food, and the camaraderie helps.”
Pratt, a longtime garbage man when his family owned a local garbage business, has only been a member of the city streets crew for a year — he followed his twin brother into the position after Dennis Pratt left it. Doug Pratt learned how to operate big trucks in the garbage business. And, even though the hours are long and sleep is sometimes hard to come by — especially during a winter like this — he enjoys what he’s doing.
“I like being out in a truck … driving it … I’ve done it for so long,” he said.
When it comes to street crew assignments this winter, Pratt is the “additions guy,” meaning he is tasked with clearing the streets in many of the city’s housing additions. He started on this particular morning with Knoll Ridge, and then the west side of Indian Ridge. Gene Fritz, a parks and rec employee, is one of two parks and rec employees of the city who get in a truck and help with snow removal efforts. Fritz was in a city pickup truck with a blade in the same areas that Pratt was in.
Pratt explained why. “Fritz is good at getting into the tighter parts of the additions,” he said, like the cul-de-sacs and circle drives that can’t be navigated as well with the big snowplow.
Cul-de-sacs are interesting for a plow driver. “Whoever invented those, especially the ones with trees in the middle …,” Pratt finished with a shake of his head. “They weren’t thinking about winters in Iowa.” Good thing Fritz has the smaller truck and blade to come into those areas after Pratt does his initial pass-throughs.
“Fritz can tidy them up,” Pratt said.
But tidying up anything these days, with the incredible amounts of snow that have been coming down in Central Iowa, is getting harder with each storm.
Jeremy Rydl, who was hired by the city at the end of 2018 as the assistant director of Public Works and street superintendent, said with each snowfall, the problem of where to push snow gets worse. The amount of snow everyone’s been dealing with, he said, “it’s frustrating” for the crews trying to clear the streets, as well as for property owners who are seeing snow piles getting higher and higher around their properties.
But what can you do?
Rydl, who came to the city from the DOT, has become the alley guy for the street crew. Unless one of the regulars on the street crew (which is six guys plus him) is sick, Rydl runs through every alley in town with a pickup truck and blade, while the others work on streets. If someone is sick or absent, he takes on one of the plow driver’s routes. Luckily, he said that’s only happened once this winter season.
He admits that at first, he didn’t think clearing city alleys was all that big of a deal. But several storms in, he changed his mind. “The alleys are the main arteries of the town,” he said, noting that there are a lot of parking areas and garages that access the alleys, so they need to be cleared.
The trouble during this winter has been that clearing snow is getting harder and harder because there’s so much of it that there’s nowhere to push it anymore.
Rydl said when crews aren’t pushing snow off streets, they are often out working with dump trucks to haul snow away from the business district and several other areas, where it gets piled high. Snow is transported to the parking lots of Harrington Park, where the easternmost parking area, as of this past weekend, was totally full.
It’s been a crazy winter, as far as snowstorms go. This past week alone saw the midweek storm and another rain/ice/snowstorm over the weekend. As Pratt said, “It’s like every three days (there’s a snow event).”
Snow is one thing; ice is another.
Rydl, last Thursday, wasn’t happy to hear about the forecasted precipitation mix for the weekend. “Ice costs more money because we have to treat (with salt) the whole road, instead of (just treating) critical spots, like intersections,” he said. And when it’s rain turning to ice, crews can’t wait until morning to get to it. “We have to get out when it’s happening.” And that will likely mean more overtime for a department that has already blown through its overtime budget this year, Rydl confirmed.
One thing Rydl is taking note of this winter is how critical it is that the street department makes plans to purchase radios for every vehicle before the next winter cycle hits. Right now, the only method of contact between all those out clearing snow is their personal cell phones.
“We need to be able to be in contact. I need to be able to talk to everybody at one time, instead of making six phone calls about something,” Rydl said. The efficiency of communication for the crew is going to be “costly, but absolutely necessary,” Rydl said, as he moves forward with the department’s needs.
For now, they make things work with what they have, and they keep their fingers crossed that Mother Nature will loosen her grip on winter sooner, rather than later.