Spot News: Fighting the Storm

SEPTA's Luther Diggs, center, director of operations, listens during a meeting at SEPTA headquarters in Center City.]

It began with an icy mist in the early morning last Wednesday. Then a layer of powder coated the ground. Soon, the cars looked like frozen marshmallows attached to wheels. The major highways had been closed before dark and all but SEPTA’s Broad Street line remained out of service.
Contracted workers shoveled City Hall last Wednesday as two feet of snow nit the city.

But the biggest accumulated snowfall to slam Philadelphia in a decade and a half had been merciful. It approached with enough warning for city officials and contract workers to prepare themselves.

Armed with shovels, plows and enough coffee to fuel their 20-hour shifts, thousands of contracted workers and city employees attacked the record-shattering snowstorm before dawn.

“[I’ve] been here since 4:30 in the morning,“ said Chris McNamara of Weathertight Roofing. McNamara, a semi-retired roofer, oversaw the massive clean-up effort at City Hall last Wednesday. He estimated between 60 and 80 workers had been hired just to tackle the snow that day.

“They’re big on this, City Hall. This is the main campus,” he said. “We do other work around the city, but this is the main one here. Between 60 and 80 people. Twelve vehicles. About 20 hours. Whatever it takes.”

The process of keeping City Hall and the surrounding sidewalks clear would be tedious, McNamara explained, because snow and ice kept falling as the day dragged on.
“[We] get all the snow up and right before it freezes we salt it and then they send most of us home,” he said. “But some of us stay behind, because we keep retreating it, pre-treat it before the next storm. You never know what’s going to happen next.”

The unexpected has been a recurring theme this winter in Philadelphia, where residents are still recovering from a massive storm two weekends ago.

At least 15 inches of snow bombarded Philadelphia between last Tuesday and Wednesday night, the National Weather Service reported. Gov, Ed Rendell ordered the Schuylkill Expressway, the Vine Street Expressway and Blue Route to be closed because of the conditions. SEPTA ordered buses off the streets by 5 p.m. Wednesday. The Philadelphia International Airport shut down for the second time in a week.

SEPTA's Luther Diggs, center, director of operations, listens during a meeting at SEPTA headquarters in Center City.

With the combined 28 inches of snowfall from two weekends ago, this winter surpasses the 65.5-inch snowfall 14 years ago as the most snow to be accumulated in Philadelphia since the National Weather Service began recording measurements over a century ago.

A snowfall of such historic proportions demanded nothing less than a lot of manpower to manage it.

PennDot deployed 5,400 employees in shifts to operate 2,250 plows and salt trucks across the entire state, said PennDot spokesperson Richard Kirkpatrick.  Mayor Michael Nutter said 480 pieces of equipment were sent out to plow and 18,000 tons of salt were on hand. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that more than 600 city workers were used for the snow removal.

“We shoveled about 6-8 inches already,” McNamara said between cigarette drags on Wednesday morning from his pickup truck parked in front of City Hall. “The mayor does a good job, the people here do a good job—and they stay right on us. I’ll probably be here for 30 hours. We’ll get a smoke, get a coffee, a half hour each.”

On the other side of City Hall, Richard Renshaw lifted and cleared snow onto ten-foot banks with a Bobcat vehicle, a lean cross between a bulldozer and a steel golf cart. Renshaw, 39, has been a union iron worker for 22 years. The severe snow had barred Renshaw from working at his normal job of building the addition to the Convention Center last Wednesday, so he assisted McNamara as a contract worker for the City Hall cleanup.

“I’m plowing, trying to get rid of the 28 inches we already had on top of whatever we are going to get in a little while,“ he said. “We usually had to plow but we need a Bobcat. We couldn’t push all these big piles of snow. We had to compensate. So we move these big piles and push them back so we can plow.”

Homeless people sought refuge in Suburban Station to escape the elements last Wednesday.

Beneath all the hustle on the surface of City Hall, the homeless found refuge from the piercing cold at Suburban Station.

“I’ve been on the street for 11 years…This is the worst winter I’ve been through as far as the snow, icy roads, businesses shut down,” said Paul Jones. He sat on a bench in a quiet corner of the station. “Service is shut down so people sleep in the train stations to stay warm. They tell you to get out of here even when it is a code blue,” he said, referring to the city allowing the homeless to stay in Suburban Station during extreme winter conditions.

Before Paul could go on, a man emerged from around the corner with plastic bags tied over his ankles, screaming that he would kill the person who stole his shoes.

“Tales from the crack side?” Paul said. Then he laughed. Outside, a swift updraft swirled the  snow flakes in suspended spirals as they plummeted from the sky.  The man with plastic bags on his feet disappeared around the corner. He returned with a torn blue rain coat and sat on a bench, muttering to himself as he tore the sleeves off the rubber coat and tied them around his feet.

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