The Ottumwa Courier

Wapello County

February 27, 2013

Snow blankets Ottumwa, causes fourth snow day of school year, keeps snowplow crews busy

OTTUMWA — Ottumwans woke up to the same old tune Tuesday morning: Snow.

Kevin Skow, National Weather Service meteorologist in Des Moines, said by the lunch hour Tuesday, Ottumwa had received anywhere from 3-5 inches of snow, though areas farther south and southwest, including Centerville and Rathbun Lake, had measured 5 to 7 inches.

Skow said the forecast included an additional 3-4 inches of snowfall Tuesday night on top of what had already fallen during the day, though it would be intermittent. Temperatures were expected to drop to around 29 degrees.

“But the snow will continue to blow around at 20-25 mph, with gusts approaching 30 to 35 mph ... blowing, drifting snow and reduced visibilities,” Skow said.

The wind was expected to die down overnight going into today, though snow was expected to continue through the night and taper off into this morning.

“The snow should exit the Ottumwa area [today] during early afternoon,” he said.

Ottumwa Public Works Superintendent Steve Edgington said after some searching, his department was able to get its 50/50 mix of sand and salt cheaper than last year — a good thing since he’s ordered around 500 tons of each this winter. Salt costs $86 per ton, and sand costs $9 per ton.

“We’ve got plenty, lest we get a bunch of these [snowstorms] for the next two months,” Edgington said. “You never know.”

In the snow event alone last week, the public works department used 300 tons of mix.

Two crews of approximately eight people each work 12-hour shifts to make sure the snow routes and emergency routes are clear during these storms. The first crew hopped in the snowplows at 7 a.m. Tuesday and got to work on clearing the main roads.

“From the forecast, it looks like they’ll be working all night,” he said.

While eight workers out plowing the streets at any given time may not seem like enough for a city of 25,000, Edgington said it’s just the right amount for his department’s equipment.

“Usually once the snow stops, we can have everything gone through within 12 hours,” he said. “We do the main drags — the emergency and snow routes — and if we do pretty good on those we start doing the side streets.”

But as the emergency and snow routes become slick again, especially with constant snowfall, Edgington said his crews will concentrate their efforts on plowing those streets over and over to keep them as clear as possible.

“Usually if it’s a heavy amount, we stay on the emergency routes all day,” he said. “That’s about all we can do. And we use the [sand and salt mix] very minimal. There’s no point in putting it down when we’re going to plow it back off.”

Edgington’s main suggestion: Slow down and stay at a distance from plow trucks.

“A lot of people are impatient and like to pass,” he said. “The second thing that would help us the most is to pay attention to the snow ordinance and get your cars off the streets.”

Park your cars in the designated areas, he said. If it’s an even-numbered day, park your car on the even-numbered sides of the streets. The same goes for odd-numbered days and odd-numbered sides of the streets.

Even if it says “No Parking” on one side of the street, you’re allowed to park there during a snow emergency if it follows the ordinance.

“Most people don’t realize that, and it’s the biggest issue I have,” he said. “The best thing is if you can get your cars off the street, get them off the street. But I understand not everyone can do that.”

Superintendent Davis Eidahl said Tuesday marked Ottumwa’s fourth snow day this school year. He said three to five snow days in a school year is typical.

One year, though, when the school district was slammed with 10 snow days, they had to consider alternatives to tacking school days onto the end of the year.

“It was going to take us deep into the second week of June, so we got permission from the state to add time during the day to start making it up,” he said. “But I don’t see that happening [this year].”

The routine of determining whether to call a school day begins at about 4:15 a.m., Eidahl said.

“We outsource our transportation with Southern Iowa Transit ... we’re touching all four corners of our district and converse on road conditions, the forecast, and try to make the best possible decision for our students and staff,” he said.

While surrounding school districts have tended to announce school closures the night before, this year Ottumwa has been announcing the morning of the cancellation.

“The earlier we can call it, the better,” Eidahl said. “If it means the night before, we would do that, but it’s been awhile since we’ve done that. We want to make sure we give families enough time to make arrangements for such a change in their schedule if there’s a delay or cancellation.”

Eidahl takes into consideration not only young children on school buses but first-time drivers at Ottumwa High School.

“Those 16- and 17-year-old young drivers are out on the road going to the high school,” he said. “We take into account that those are young, inexperienced drivers. Those are new experiences for those drivers, so we’d prefer them out on the road in June, not on a day like this.”

A network of surrounding districts’ superintendents all confer with each other about possible snow days, Eidahl said.

“We’re all talking in the early morning,” he said. “We border each other ... our southern district butts up against Davis County and Cardinal, as well as east and west of us. We’re talking a big geographical district as we make this decision.”

Currently, Ottumwa schools are slated to finish the school year on Thursday, June 6, including the snow days they’ve had so far. And high school seniors are lucky — they don’t have to make up snow days.

“Right now, I don’t think we’re getting too excited about it because we’ve only had a few,” said school board president Carol Mitchell. “But if we have more, I’m sure we’ll start thinking of alternative ways to make up time so we don’t get out the end of June.”

Ottumwa Police Sgt. Brian Johnson said as of noon Tuesday, law enforcement had only been called to two accidents since 6 a.m.

“One of those was just a single vehicle hit a stop sign and another one hit a parked car,” he said. “It hasn’t been that bad of a winter as far as snowfall goes. There are probably days where we’ve had more accidents in good weather than in bad weather.”

By this point in the season, Johnson said he hopes people know what they need to have in their vehicles during the winter months.

“If you have rear-wheel drive, have a little weight over the axle for traction,” he said. “And it’s always best to keep emergency winter apparel in your vehicle if you have to get out in the snow in case the vehicle becomes stuck: a head covering, gloves, a winter jacket, maybe a blanket. And a cell phone is good to have year-round for emergencies.”

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