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Road crews ready for winter

Eight inches. 10 inches. 12 inches. Wintry mix. Ice. Snow.

If the winter of 2009-2010 was characterized by anything, it was that word: snow. In Western North Carolina, a record winter blasted citizens across the region with barrages of snow and icy winds for months on end, disrupting school, blocking roads and generally making a mess of a region unaccustomed to the deep chill of snowed-in winters that are usually the sole preserve of our unfortunate neighbors to the west and north.

So as this winter begins to settle in, the region is tentatively gearing up for another season of icy assault as the first few flurries begin to fall.

At Division 14 of the N.C. Department of Transportation, they’re taking a proactive approach, trying to beat the storms to as many punches as possible. Though many in the state and nation depleted their stocks of that all-important salt mixture that makes snowy roads passable, Mark Gibbs, the division’s maintenance engineer, proudly reports that he and his crews made their salt stores last through the winter, if only just.

They were scrambling to keep up with demand, said Gibbs, “because of the amount of storms that we had back-to-back and the amount of time that we had to spend doing snow and ice removal operations.”

But he is confident that, if they made it through last year, they can do it again.

“We paid contractors to truck salt in from as far away as Fayetteville,” said Gibbs. “Last winter is one of the worst winters that I recall in my DOT career in the last 17 years, and if we don’t run out of salt in a situation like that, I don’t think that we will.”

For the transportation department, he said, the goal this year is to get out early, laying down salt brine on the road as soon as they get wind of coming weather. This not only keeps the snow and ice from sticking, it saves money and precious salt, using a liquefied form to stretch it further.

Then, when the weather does hit, he’ll have crews out working the road 24 hours a day in two, 12-hour shifts until everything is clear.

“We have had some times when our folks have had to work 30, 40 straight days in a row, so it’s quite an event for us to try and stay ahead of it when you have multiple storms, back-to-back like we had last year,” Gibbs said.

Especially with rigorous standards like those that DOT personnel must meet. The state mandates that roads on what the department calls the “statewide tier,” which are interstates such as I-40 in Haywood County, must be cleared within 12 hours of a storm. According to Gibbs, that means that “once the last flake of snow has fallen, we have 12 hours.” They get 24 hours to clear regional tier roads like N.C. 107 and U.S. 441 and 72 hours to clear secondary roads that have the four-number, state-road designation. And while that may seem like a somewhat less-than-exacting standard, Gibbs said it’s still pretty tough when applied to every road in their 10-county coverage area.

“If you think about a large snow event where you get a foot of snow, three days – 72 hours – is really not a lot of time to hit all our roads, including secondary roads,” said Gibbs. But, he adds, they hit the mark during all but one storm last year, so he’s got high hopes for this winter.


School days or snow days?

It isn’t just the roads that suffer when weather turns wintry, though. Schools are some of the hardest hit by snow and ice, and after the salvo of storms that was last winter, it seemed that the regions students spent more time watching for school closures than actually at school.

That tricky scenario, said Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent at Haywood County Schools, is one that school officials across Western North Carolina spend a lot of their time dealing with, especially faced with the prospect of more dire winters to come. In Haywood County, their experiences last year prompted them to change tack, adding some flexibility to their bad-weather response plan.

“The biggest thing that we did was add a three-hour delay schedule,” said Nolte. “That’s the most substantive change.”

It will give officials another tool in their bad-weather arsenal, a bridge between the traditional two-hour delay and full-on school closure.

In Jackson and Macon counties, they long ago split the county into several districts that follow geographical lines. That allows students truly affected by weather to stay safe and stay home, while those at lower altitudes who may see nary a flake on the ground can enjoy a normal school day.

“For inclement weather, we found years ago it was better to separate the two [districts],” said Steve Jones, assistant superintendent at Jackson County Schools, “because when we said ‘Jackson County schools: two-hour delay,’ Smoky Mountain district could have come.”

Macon County did the same thing, giving their zones in Nantahala and Highlands virtual autonomy over their transportation, allowing them to close their schools without affecting the broader district.

“We stretch in such a wide direction north to south, so it can be snowing in Nantahala and sunshining in Franklin,” said Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman. “It’s very tricky in this area of the state because of our variations in elevation.”

Which is why, given the wildly fluctuating Western weather, schools in the region have been sending a vehement stream of protests and requests to Raleigh, asking that control of the calendar be put back in local hands.

“We try to build more snow days into the calendar, but there’s only so many days you can build,” said Swain Superintendent Bob Marr. “I have done everything I know to do to get that calendar law changed.”

His county was lucky, he said, to be granted a calendar waiver that allows them carry on with school past the state deadline next year. Other school systems were not so fortunate and are, this year, balancing safety and class time within calendar constraints that don’t match winter reality of WNC.

“There’s a lot about the calendar that’s completely out of our control,” said Haywood’s Nolte. “One of the things that we have advocated with the state legislature is that the state allocate “just-weather days,” days that are just for weather.”

Because now, schools facing tough weather have to use days other, more temperate districts get to use for professional development, special programs and make-up testing.

“That’s inherently unfair and a huge disadvantage academically,” laments Nolte, who, like Marr, wants control of the calendar back in local hands.

For now, though, they’ll have to stick with what they’ve got – sending out patrols in the morning’s wee hours, checking out roads and, like the DOT, trying to stay ahead of the weather.

In Haywood County, they run on a basic formula: if more than 10 percent of bus routes are blocked, schools close. They delay if the forecast predicts a morning warm-up, which, Nolte realizes, can make for some unhappy parents in the county’s snowless locales.

“We hope that people understand that we have a large county geographically,” Nolte said. “It looked very different at my house this morning than it did at my office, and they’re less than 10 miles apart.”

In Jackson, Macon and Swain, they just take the call, in consultation with emergency services and local law enforcement, and, if possible, only close affected districts.

But though they’re pressed to get in the required classroom face time, Macon Superintendent Brigman said that, even if worse winters are to come, they’ll always put safety first and deal with the calendar later.

“We can always make up a school day,” said Brigman. “We can’t replace someone’s health or their life.”

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