Road crews get upper hand

Kelli Short dumps sand into the back of a large county truck equipped with a plow.   - Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times
Kelli Short dumps sand into the back of a large county truck equipped with a plow.
— image credit: Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times

Island County’s road crews are finishing up a harrowing two weeks of trying to keep the country roads passable for motorists.

Although rain started falling Christmas Day, there was still much to be done Thursday morning as crews had to deal with tons of slush threatening to keep islanders from their appointed rounds.

A typical road crew day during this unusual cold spell started early Tuesday morning as bright lights glared off the snow and ice at the Oak Harbor Road Shop.

Several crew members talked in the break room, gathering plow log sheets and bundling up before their shifts.

Kelli Short made more photocopies of the blank logs, which are used to track sanding and plowing routes.

This was the worst island snowstorm Short remembers. Depths varied by area, but reports of snow a foot-deep or more were common. The Whidbey Island native has worked at the Road Shop for 15 years.

Over the past two weeks, plow and sanding crews scribbled notes on dozens of logs as they did their best to navigate county roadways.

At first, the unanticipated influx of snow dazzled kids, motorists, even the Oak Harbor Road Shop crews.

But the wonder had worn off by Tuesday, Short said. The snow was layered with ice, making things difficult for everyone.

All during the emergency, road crews worked from 4 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., while 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. is the norm, she said.

The dangerous road conditions, long hours and inconvenience caused by the snow is enough to melt away its initial charm.

“When the snow first comes, they’re all appreciative,” Short said of local motorists. “Now it’s like, ‘Get out of my way.’ The novelty is gone.”

The job isn’t easy, even for Island County’s North District crew, equipped with three large snow plow/sand trucks and two smaller one-ton plows.

County crews try to stick to the same routes, so they can learn how to best navigate tricky turns and steep hills.

Despite their weight and size, the trucks aren’t immune to snow and ice.

As of Tuesday, the shop was down two trucks. One slid into a ditch Monday night and another was in the shop for a broken sander.

“It’s real scary when these trucks start sliding,” she said.

The Goliath-sized vehicles display other quirks in icy weather. If there’s not enough sand in the back, the big trucks “hop” down sloping roadways, she said.

The county planned to mix salt into the sand — as it did last year — but the rash of storms prevented the salt shipment from leaving Spokane. Instead, the county is using pure, local sand mined from a pit off Henni Road.

Short isn’t sure how much sand the county used in the past week, but Oak Harbor Public Works Director Cathy Rosen said the city has used 177 tons of sand and crews worked 80 hours of overtime as of Monday morning. They kept working all week, and by Thursday most major streets were virtually clear. Barriers were removed from Dock Street and Midway Blvd., allowing downhill access once again.

Throughout Island County, the road crews continued their work, hoping to find a little time to enjoy the Christmas holiday. Everyone went back to work early Thursday, scraping piles of slush from the roadways.

With warmer, wet weather forecast for this weekend, they won’t be disappointed to see this particular winter wonderland fade away. At least with rain, you don’t have to plow it off the roads.

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