Saturday, January 31, 2004

Kids, not plows, take day off


No rest for the weary: Crews clear streets in 20-hour shifts

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Temperatures plunging near zero and another coat of snow kept salt truck and snowplow drivers laboring overtime, packed some homeless shelters to overflowing, stranded hundreds of motorists and forced thousands of families to juggle schedules because of school closings or delays.

While the bitter cold is expected to hang around another day - the temperature is expected to climb back to the low 20s today - no more precipitation is expected until a snow-rain mix hits Monday.

THE FORECAST
High 20°     Low 9°
Clouds and sunshine.
WCPO Weather
School delays, closings
That gives a little break to workers who did 18- to 20-hour shifts to cope with snowfall Thursday evening and early Friday.

"It was just tough to keep up with," said Karl Graham, Cincinnati's assistant superintendent of public services. "Our drivers have been working around the clock. And the snow kept coming."

As in most municipalities, Cincinnati has a pecking order when it comes to treating the city's 2,000-plus miles of streets.

"Priority 1" streets, according to Public Services Director Daryl Brock, are the major arteries, particularly the ones that lead to the city's hospitals. That is why, every time there is a significant snowfall, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive from Central Parkway up to "Hospital Hill" is one of the first roads cleared, because it is the prime route used by ambulances coming from the west and north sides of Cincinnati.

"Once we have those main arteries taken care of , we move on to the residential streets, the ones that don't have as much traffic and have no focal points like big employers or hospitals," Brock said. "All we can do is ask everyone to be patient - we'll get to your street."

Four years ago, when repeated heavy snowfalls caused problems and complaints about snow removal inundated city hall, the city's public services department retooled its snow removal program. It adopted the motto "Beat the 'Burbs," a reference to the suburban municipalities' reputation for getting their streets cleared faster and more thoroughly than the city.

It meant an upgrade in the 60-truck fleet and additional pickups fitted with dump beds and spreaders so crews could get access to narrow residential streets. It also meant that several other city agencies were issued salt spreaders for their trucks so they could help deal with heavy snowfalls.

In outlying counties, authorities reported that crews were keeping up, although they were monitoring salt supplies.

Some motorists didn't make it to the snow-covered roads.

The Cincinnati area's American Automobile Association office received 400 calls from motorists Friday morning, and about 200 service trucks were dispatched, according to Sandra Guile, AAA's public relations coordinator. The average 24-hour period in January usually sees more than 1,500 calls, Guile said.

"Very few of the calls were people who couldn't get their cars started," Guile said. "Mostly it was people being plowed in and needing help getting out of their driveways, or people trying to barrel their way through big mounds of plowed snow and getting stuck."

Area homeless shelters have been filled to overflowing.

Family shelters around the city and the Lighthouse Youth Services facility in Clifton have been full most nights this week. The Drop-Inn Center in Over-the-Rhine, the city's largest homeless shelter, held 326 people Thursday, according to Georgine Getty, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.

Some have even been crowding into the coalition's offices on Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine during the day to get warmed up and have a hot cup of coffee, Getty said.

"It's been a mob scene here," Getty said.

Cincinnati Public Schools canceled Friday morning because of two major concerns.

"One was the condition of our side streets," said Janet Walsh, district spokeswoman. "When we needed to make the call, which was before 5 a.m., those streets were really pretty bad, our bus vendors were telling us. Our buses could have trouble on side streets, and that could pose a safety risk for our students.

"Our other concern was the extreme cold, which was an area of concern not just for bus riders who might have to stand at bus stops in this very cold weather, but for our thousands of walkers."

Superintendent Alton Frailey made the decision after a 4:30 a.m. conference call with district administrators, hearing the recommendations from the transportation director and chief operations officer, who consult weather reports, the Cincinnati Highway Maintenance Department and Metro.

For Geoff Volle, 14, school closings in Hamilton meant he spent the day at the office with his dad. Barb Volle had taken a vacation day from her job at Paperworks in Blue Ash Monday to stay home with Geoff and Elaine, 13.

Friday, it was Tom Volle's turn to take care of the kids.

"They were upset this morning because I wouldn't stay home," he said. "They wanted to go outside and play with their friends."

Instead of taking a day off from his family-owned business, Northbrook Auto and Truck, he took the kids with him.

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Reporter Cindy Kranz and contributor Perry Schaible reported for this story. E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com




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