The Ottumwa Courier

March 1, 2013

Road graders struggle to keep up with clearing rural roads

Constant snowfall causes sixth snow day of school year

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — The decision to call the third snow day in a row — and the sixth this school year — was based on the nearly impassable rural roads.

“We have a lot of county roads, and I understand the task the county workers have, therefore sometimes maintaining some of those roads is out of their control,” said Ottumwa Superintendent Davis Eidahl.

At times during snowfall the school district will run buses on “hard surface only” routes.

“That’s what we were hoping to get by with [Thursday] morning,” Eidahl said. “But those hard-surface roads in the county had frozen over overnight, and there was not enough time to get the buses out this morning and running.”

Dan Terrell, superintendent of Wapello County Secondary Roads Department, said the wind plays a major role in making his job even harder.

“Out in the rural area where the wind gets to them more and with it snowing all night last [Wednesday] night, it blowed them back shut,” Terrell said. “There was no way to keep up with it.”

The roads began to open during the day Wednesday, he said, but snow started blowing across and created an icy covering, as well as 2- to 3-foot snow drifts in some areas.

When it snows nearly constantly for days on end, he said his crews are out going over the roads non-stop.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Ottumwa area had received 7-10 inches of snow since Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service in Des Moines.

The secondary roads department can’t use its normal sand/salt mixture on gravel roads.

“The salt will melt the ice on the paved road, but that brine it produces doesn’t soak into the paved road. It dries on top of it,” Terrell said. “If that salt gets into that gravel road, it will turn to mud. It makes conditions worse and muddier than they already are.”

His department has 10 road graders that run over all gravel roads in the county, as well as nine trucks on paved county roads.

“Those nine run continuously,” Terrell said. “Then there’s the loader operators working in the shop loading sand and salt. But it’s not enough. There’s more jobs than there are people.”

In total, his department has to clear 700 to 800 miles of county roads.

“When it’s snowing at the rate it’s been snowing the past couple days, it’s too many miles,” he said. “Each operator in the county that runs one of the road graders has got 70-90 miles in one territory.”

This time, since the roads were already frozen and slick before the snow started falling, it has slowed down the process of clearing them.

“It makes it so the road grader can’t run as fast because the blade wants to cut clear down into the dirt on the road,” he said. “You have to go a lot slower to get the snow off.

“In conditions like this when it keeps continually snowing, you’re constantly playing catch-up and going over and over again. The roads will be bladed three to four times before we catch up ... Mother Nature’s got to run its course, and we’re doing the best we can.”

Eidahl said he hears the community’s concerns of having too many snow days, though he said school will start at the regular time today with buses running on hard surfaces only.

Evans Middle School science teacher Tanner Neuberger said snow days are a great chance for teachers to get in extra planning or catch up on work, as well as to simply relax.

But, he said, it makes summer shorter, and especially since he coaches baseball in the summer, it takes away from the time he can devote to his players.

Ottumwa High School teacher Amy Drake said tacking days on to the end of the school year isn’t necessarily the best idea when it pushes the school year into mid-June.

“Students are better behaved when the weather is bad, so not being at school now will just lead to anxious kids in June,” Drake said.

But the snow days are understandable, Neuberger said, since Ottumwa does bus in students from rural areas of the county.

“I was talking with some friends in the school districts in Des Moines who are not having snow days — but they don’t have a lot of rural students,” he said. “That’s where the big problem comes from is getting out to those rural roads in the morning. Our biggest concern is always kids’ safety, but it’s hard to control when the roads are almost pure ice.”

Neuberger agrees with Eidahl’s decision to declare three snow days this week alone.

“He’s thinking about each and every student and their safety,” he said. “He wants them to arrive to school on time, safe and alive.”

Instead of adding school days onto the end of the school year, Neuberger said he would prefer keeping students in school a little longer right now.

“While we have the students now, we can add an extra half hour to the end of the day for a week or two, and I think the students will be fine with that so they have a longer summer,” he said.