Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 1, 2012

34-year DOH worker: Storm worst he’s seen for clearing roads

By Mannix Porterfield
For the Daily Telegraph

BECKLEY — In his 34-year run with the West Virginia Division of Highways, this week’s hurricane-fed snowstorm was the biggest nightmare James Dalton says he’s ever faced in getting snow-blanketed roads cleared.

“It’s been a rough couple of days,” the administrator of the DOH in Raleigh County said Wednesday.

As he spoke, highway workers steeled themselves for one Herculean task — knocking down a 20-foot drift on Scott Ridge Road in the Grandview area.

“If you had seen that snow falling,” Dalton said.

“It was the most I’ve ever seen out of my 34 years. The snow wasn’t just falling. It was blowing sideways. You couldn’t see an arm length when you stood outside. That’s how hard it was, and heavy and windy.”

Compounding matters, he explained, when cars and trucks stalled in the wet snow, heat from their vehicles caused a rapid melt and that bonded to the roads, leaving an icy layer underneath.

Hopefully, by the end of the week, Dalton said his team should have most roads open to the point people can navigate to work, school, grocery stores, doctors’ offices and the like.

“We’re still going to have to do some more work on them to get the snow moved back,” he said.

“By the end of the week, we should have no one who is stranded because of snow and trees.”

Dalton’s crew has worked in tandem with Appalachian Power Co. teams in an effort to clear away fallen trees and remove snow so electricity can be restored in pockets of outages.

“Fortunately, we haven’t had anybody hurt,” Dalton said.

“There is the whole key. We’ve got employees scaling the sides of banks, cutting trees. You’ve got guys plowing snow that’s so deep the trucks will hardly plow it. Our first concern is safety. If our guys get hurt, then we have no one to come out the next day.”

By midweek, main roads were in good shape, but some secondary roads in the county remained blocked, and that was the focus as the weekend approaches, Dalton said.

“We’re putting all the emphasis on them (Wednesday morning) to get those cleared,” he said.

“Then, we will actually be going in on the side streets and side roads.”

Dalton appealed to county residents to exercise some patience, a virtue that apparently was in short supply with some folks, many of whom bombarded the office receptionist with surly remarks.

“A lot of people have an outlook,” Dalton said. “And there are all of the jokes and puns that go with it. But we actually do work really hard. It’s not the easiest job out here.”

Especially when the office must cover 1,500 miles of roads largely across mountainous terrain subject to heavy snows and drifting, he noted, adding, “That is paved and unpaved we take care of. It all don’t happen in a day.”

Yet, some get antsy when the snow piles up and a road isn’t cleared immediately.

“I don’t hold any animosity toward anyone,” Dalton said.

“I can see how frustrated you could actually be. You live on a road that’s blocked. You can’t get out. You don’t have power.”

At the same time, Dalton said it is pointless to unleash a stream of vulgarities on the secretaries.

“We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “We’ll get to you sooner or later. I can understand some of the frustration, to a point.”

Yet, unlike the June 29 derecho that seemed to sneak into the state, there was ample warning about Hurricane Sandy and the fateful collision with a cold front that sent January-like weather into West Virginia.

Dalton has 52 employees under him, and among the more critical are the mechanics who battle snow and soot in keeping graders and trucks cleaned, sharp and greased for constant runs.

“Without our mechanics, we have no organization,” he said.

“We have nothing. These old trucks tear up. And if it wasn’t for these guys back there — they’re not even leaving, just staying here — keeping this stuff running, we would just be worthless.”

Computers feed a steady stream of salt on the trucks while drivers dial up the rate of how much per pound is to be distributed.

“That gives us our application rate of what we’re doing,” Dalton said.

“Once it’s set, everything automatically feeds out the back. Hopefully, nothing happens. If everything goes well, it’s pretty easy, except for the guy turning the steering wheel.”

Dalton remembers the old way of standing in the back of trucks to shovel cinders and salt on snow-covered roads.

“I’ve been in highways since 1975 and that’s how we used to do it,” he said.

“I’ve seen it all. Every bit of it.”

A constant problem in a protracted snowstorm like this one is keeping sharp blades on the front of the trucks, since a plow is usually rendered useless after three days of duty, he pointed out. And a blade runs about $600.

“Metal cuts into the road from scraping the snow,” Dalton said.

“The mechanic’s job is never done. Plus, you have all this snow and soot running down their backs.”