DelDOT: ‘Not a typical snowfall event’

Wind blown snow swirls around the back of a car that had to drive on the opposite side of Berrytown Road because of a snowdrift near Felton on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Delaware Department of Transportation officials said Friday they knew to expect the high snowfall total from the storm that hit on Thursday, but high winds complicated and delayed the department’s response.

“This morning I had one of our engineers — who’s worked for DelDOT in Sussex County for about the last 20 years — that this was the worst wind and snow-related event he’d seen countywide during his career,” said DelDOT spokesman Charles “C.R.” McLeod. “This has not been a typical snowfall event for us.”

Mike Webb, who’s worked for DelDOT for almost 30 years, puts it in his top three winter storms. The plow operator reported for work at 10 p.m. Wednesday and was still on the job Friday evening.

“It’s been a really hard storm. The worst part is fighting with the wind and the freezing temperatures,” said Mr. Webb. “We’ve had to constantly keep running down the roads where the drifting is happening, but with the winds, as soon as we hit the snow, it blows right back on the road behind us.”

A DelDOT snowplow drives on Briarbush Road near Magnolia on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Working out of the DelDOT yard in Magnolia, Mr. Webb is part of the lower Kent County snow removal team. Although driving restrictions were in place, he noticed that many motorists remained undeterred.

“There were still a fair amount of people out driving in Kent County — I had a lady lose control of her car and spin out right in front of me on Route 13,” Mr. Webb said. “Luckily. she was OK and we were able to push her out. But people really should try to stay home during these storms. It’s just not a good situation because they get stuck, then they’re in the way and it’s dangerous for everyone.”

Cold temperatures have reduced the effectiveness of the salt DelDOT spreads on roadways — causing icy and hazardous conditions.

“That’s been one of the biggest challenges aside from the wind,” Mr. McLeod said. “Luckily, most of Friday was sunny and that helped warm the surface up a bit so the salt could help with the melting. But when we get below 13-14 degrees, which is in the forecast for the weekend, the effectiveness of salt does go down drastically. In the overnight hours especially, there will continue to be slick spots.”

Bill Rose of Felton shovels his sidewalk on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

As of Friday, Mr. McLeod noted that DelDOT had made significant strides in New Castle and Kent counties in terms of snow removal from primary and secondary roads. But a lot of work remained in Sussex County where both the snowfall totals and wind were most extreme.

On Friday, a full deployment of 500 employees and 400 pieces of snow removal equipment were out on the roads for the effort. DelDOT even had to call in some private reinforcements to help.

“In Sussex County, we’ve actually brought on about 25 contractor plow operators to help get things dug out,” said. Mr. McLeod. “That’s on the higher end of what’s normal for us, even during big snow storms.

“As we improve conditions in New Castle and Kent counties we’re trying to move some of those plows down to help finish up in Sussex County, but there is just a lot to do.”

In addition to having a lot of snow to move that constantly blows back into the roadway, stuck and abandoned vehicles also bedeviled the snow removal effort on Thursday and Friday.

“It got to the point where many motorists had to leave their cars on the roadway because they were too stuck — they didn’t have any choice,” said Mr. McLeod. “Not just on the shoulder either; there were multiple cars left in travel lanes. That really slows us down a lot when that happens because the state police have to be a part of removing abandoned vehicles. We can’t just tow them away.”

The beauty of snowfall on The Green in Dover on Thursday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Mr. McLeod said Friday he was only aware of two plow vs. motorist collisions.

“The both involved a car sliding into one of our plows,” he said. “Luckily, no one was hurt and there wasn’t much damage.

“In a separate incident we actually had a plow slide and end up crashing onto its side in Sussex County. We were actually able to get it right side up quickly and put it right back to work though.”

During the storm, the travel restrictions Gov. John Carney implemented were immensely helpful to the cleanup effort, said Mr. McLeod.

“At noon on Friday, the Level Two driving restrictions were lifted in Sussex County, but the governor kept the state of emergency in place so the National Guard could continue helping with abandoned car issues. It was very helpful to keep as many people off the roads and possible. It reduced the danger and sped up our efforts.”

The Delaware National Guard, said approximately 35 guardsmen were activated to assist with various emergency efforts on Thursday and Friday. Around noon on Thursday, the Guard dispatched 20 drivers and vehicles to Sussex County.

“The vehicles included HUMVEEs and trucks that are capable of not only maneuvering in snow and water, but also transporting up to a dozen passengers,” said National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Len Gratteri.

“We have a small team here in New Castle at our headquarters that is manning our joint operations center and coordinating our efforts through DEMA. We sent liaison officers to the Sussex County Emergency Operations Center to help coordinate assistance out of that location.”

Lt. Col. Gratteri said the guardsmen working in Sussex County were primarily engaged in helping emergency responders and medical workers get to and from work and helping emergency responders on calls where only the HUMVEE could maneuver in the snow. They also assisted dozens of stranded motorists and made sure they were transported to safety, he said.

Weekend draw down

There’s still work to do, but Mr. McLeod believes DelDOT’s operation will start drawing down sometime today. Staff will still be needed to monitor conditions and continually address problem areas — secondary roads and subdivisions in Sussex County will still likely need attention throughout the day.

Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder

“We’re expecting that, for the most part, people in the state will be able to start resuming their normal routines — people are probably starting to get cabin fever,” said Mr. McLeod. “Crews will have been at work on this for up to about 72 hours, which is pretty intense. Plow drivers are usually on duty for 19 hour shifts.

“For every 24 hours, we do require a minimum of a 5-hour rest period. The men and women who are operating our equipment have, no doubt, been putting in some long hours to keep our roads clear.”

Mr. Webb says his crew rotates so they always have the plows on the road. When it’s his turn to sleep, he tucks in to either a cot at DelDOT’s Magnolia yard or he sleeps in his personal vehicle.

“It’s just a few hours, so I hop in my vehicle, crank up the heat and get some sleep,” he said. “We manage. DelDOT takes good care of us and we have good equipment so we just do what we have to do.”

Weekend forecast

The National Weather Service said Kent County will have a sunny but cold day today with a high near 15 and wind chill values as low as -9. West winds at 13-20 miles per hour, with gusts as high as 34, will continue to blow snow onto roadways. Tonight, the low will be about 3 degrees.

Sunday’s high will be near 20 with lighter northwest winds becoming southwest in the afternoon. Sunday will be the 12th consecutive day without reaching a temperature above freezing.

Monday’s high is expected to be 39.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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