Our white week

More snow than even old-timers could remember

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photo by Eric Bond

by Howard Kohn

As hard as the February snowstorms were on everyone, they were without a doubt hardest on the unflappable Daryl Braithwaite, who, as director of public works, was charged with restoring the accustomed state of mobility to our local world as fast as possible.  Not that she would ever admit to feeling that the whole town had her under the gun, but, on a sunny day later on, after the white seas had been parted, she did say, a bit ruefully, “I’m trying to put all those memories out of my mind.”

The Friday that the biggest of the blizzards darkened the sky, February 5, Daryl straight away put her department on emergency status.  She gave her crews the unpopular message that, even though they had been called on to clear away snow on overtime the previous two weekends, they were now to forget about going home to deal with any personal exigencies.  For the foreseeable future they were to work 12 hours out of every 24 and sleep at a Silver Spring motel.

“The first day,” Daryl said, talking about the job at hand, “was a constant battle.” A few years ago she had persuaded the City Council to invest in heavier-duty plow trucks, called 450s, replacing 250s and 350s, and, while these big ones could bust more easily through drifts that reached heights of five feet they still had their weak moments. “They’d slide off the road and get stuck because the snow was so heavy and wet.”

 


Workers not on snow-moving duty were assigned the gingerly task of pulling tree branches off power lines.

Daryl
was loathe to leave her office on Oswego Avenue, the designated Storm
Central, but late on Saturday she took a break.  Unlike the men on her
crews she lives in town, in the B. F. Gilbert neighborhood.  She met up
with her husband Will Shafer, also coming home from a long day, and
they collected their young son from a babysitter.  At their house the
lights wouldn’t turn on, and they noticed candle-lit windows up and
down a street that looked suddenly medieval.  Somewhere in the vicinity
Mother Nature had cut off the electricity.

Nearby motels were
booked. They had to negotiate ice-rutted streets to bunk down in New
Carrollton. By Monday evening Daryl was able to sleep in her own bed,
but by then she could find little respite from the stress on the faces
of her men and the relentless e-mail traffic and ringing of phones from
frustrated motorists unable to motor.

With the help of freelance
plow-men brought in to pick up the pace the Takoma Park streets opened
up faster than almost all others in surrounding districts, but the
storms had been so disproportionate to the norm that even old-timers
couldn’t remember a worse snowbound time. The essential plan was to
push the white sludge into pyramids, load it into trucks and dump it in
a summertime parking lot at the dead end of Darwin Avenue.

Everything
was fraught with risk.  On Tuesday evening, in the midst of another
snowfall, Daryl sent a driver and truck for a load of rock salt in
Baltimore.  On the trip back, on I-95, a tire blew.  About 10:30 she
dispatched a mechanic to change the tire and did not breathe a sigh of
relief until she heard that the task, on a narrow, snow-packed
roadside, in a frigid, wet wind, the fatigue of the day setting in, was
safely completed.

To have such amazing luck as to avoid all
accidents wasn’t going to happen, and ultimately there was a doozy of
one in front of Peter Kovar and Paula Kowalczuk’s house, at the
intersection of Tulip and Holly Avenues, where a pile of snow had
blocked them in.  When a crew tried to move the pile a plow tip struck
a fire hydrant, and water gushed.  The sidewalk next to the hydrant
seemed navigable to Peter and Paula, surveying the scene and tiptoeing
past, but their daughter Sarah took one step into the front yard and
disappeared into a seven-foot sinkhole, unseen under a layer of snow.
She was okay, though up to her waist in water, and then the sidewalk
collapsed. In the end only a dogwood perished, which was lucky enough.

But
this mishap, which, because no one got hurt, will someday make a good
fireside story, occurred later, during the secondary phase of
clean-up.  All through the primary phase, except for a couple dinged
fenders, Daryl’s guys kept up a marathon of meticulous concentration,
their front-enders cleaving inches from snow-crusted cars, even as
Daryl felt ever more sympathy for them. “It was such a grind, no
let-up. It just wore you down,” she said.

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During the Blizzard of 2010, Mayor Bruce Williams gladly became a delivery man for Takoma Park’s hardworking snow crews.

photo by HOWARD KOHN

At 11:50 on Wednesday
morning, with City Hall still closed, Mayor Bruce Williams rolled up to
the Oswego office in his maroon pickup truck, one of a few civilian
vehicles venturing about. The passenger side of his front seat was
loaded with cardboard boxes and paper bags of homemade lunches.  From a
cadre of good souls, federal workers and non-profit types stuck at
home, he had picked up squash soup and Texas chili and kale salad and
oven-warmed breads and pans of brownies. He lugged in the food and
spread it out on the lunchroom table as the midnight-to-noon shift
stomped their boots and began to clock out.
“You’re kidding – this
is for us?” one of the men said. The mayor nodded while Daryl, beaming,
set out paper plates and plastic forks and spoons.

A bread
roll popped off a plate and onto the floor but was immediately seized.
“Five second rule,” said the guy with the fast hands.

Bruce
continued these deliveries of potluck, and Nancy Martin, one of several
do-gooders who had responded to the mayor’s support-our-troops e-mail
entreaty, rode shotgun in his truck, until Daryl informed them, on
Friday, that the cupboard was too full.

By then she was ready to call an end to the emergency, which she did at midnight, and everyone went home.

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