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Josh Primmer shoveled himself out of his driveway in the Linden Hills area.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Cities pleading for patience amid mountains of snow

  • Article by: BILL McAULIFFE and RICHARD MERYHEW
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • December 13, 2010 - 11:48 PM

The great snowstorm of December 2010 is history, but the Twin Cities are still struggling to break free of its grip.

From Wayzata to Woodbury, thousands of metro-area residents spent the better part of a bone-chilling Monday continuing to dig out from the worst December blizzard on record.

For rush-hour motorists, the start of the work week brought black ice, narrow roads and aggravating bumper-to-bumper commutes that lasted hours.

For kids in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, it meant a snow day, and will bring a second one Tuesday.

For state, county and city crews, it was another day of around-the-clock plowing to reclaim streets and highways.

And for tow-truck operators, it was a day to rescue stalled motorists and gear up for a second snow emergency in Minneapolis scheduled to begin Monday night.

As exhausting and trying as the frigid ordeal was, relief could be elusive.

Although temperatures are expected to rise moderately in coming days, up to 4 more inches of snow is possible across the metro area Wednesday and Thursday.

With so much snow to remove and more possibly on the way, weary public officials pleaded for patience.

"We ask people to understand the magnitude of what we have seen," said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who described the volume of snow being removed from the city's streets as equivalent to "a million cement trucks full."

At a news conference, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak thanked residents and city employees for their "heroic work" and called for a continuing cooperative spirit.

He said the back-to-back snow emergencies were "expensive but also necessary."

Minneapolis transportation maintenance supervisor Mike Kennedy said that as of Monday, some streets had received only one pass with a plow during the first snow emergency.

Parking will be banned on even sides of residential streets beginning at 8 a.m. Tuesday, and from odd sides beginning at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Although towing fees were forgiven during the first snow emergency, officials indicated that violators will be towed at their own expense this time.

"I don't remember since the Halloween blizzard [of 1991] when we didn't get through our routes," Kennedy said. "It's just overwhelming."

In St. Paul, Coleman likewise asked for patience as plows dug through neighborhoods. All main roads would be plowed by Monday night, he said, but the city's priority was clearing access to schools. Both St. Paul and Minneapolis public schools were closed Monday, and will be again Tuesday.

Coleman said the city was largely backing off from towing cars because many residents couldn't move their vehicles from banned parking areas. By late Monday, the city had towed about 100 vehicles, most of which had been stuck in driving lanes where they would block emergency vehicles.

Officials in each city indicated that a typical snow emergency would cost up to $500,000. This one, however, could be more for both, they said.

Despite the challenges of the day, the landscape sparkled in the low December sun. Lakewood Cemetery glistened, with nary a footprint interrupting the paths of headstones. Even on a no-school day, a steep park hill remained quiet and vacant; it was too cold for sledding.

Historic stuff

Saturday's storm, the cleanup and the traffic gridlock that has followed have prompted comparisons to the record 1991 Halloween blizzard, which dropped 28.4 inches of snow in the Twin Cities and left roads in nightmarish condition for days. One key difference, though, is that snow from that storm vanished within three weeks. Current forecasts don't indicate any thaw, and the official start of winter is still a week away.

Beyond the core cities, the storm fight was also daunting.

In Eden Prairie, plow drivers put in about 21 hours of overtime Saturday and Sunday, costing about $30,000 in labor alone, said public works director Gene Dietz.

In Oakdale, where 20 inches of snow fell, the city fought to keep roads to police and fire stations open for emergency vehicles. In one instance a police officer responding to a medical emergency shoveled his way to a house.

With another snowstorm looming Wednesday, road crews Monday were trying to reduce giant plowed piles "to make room for more snow," said Brian Bachmeier, director of the city's public works department.

In Prior Lake, a city posting asked for residents' patience as crews tried to figure out where to put all the snow. "This operation may take several days, and, though the city will do what it can to prevent it, some snow may unload in resident driveways," it read.

Where to put all that snow?

What becomes of all the snow isn't clear.

In Hennepin County, the state's most populous county, about 70 trucks plowed 69 routes Monday, pushing back snow from lanes to keep them passable. In some instances, snow will have to be hauled away because it could impede traffic flow, said Jacob Bronder, road and bridge operations engineer with Hennepin County.

"We can only push it so far," he said.

Bronder said it could take up to two weeks to haul away snow. It will be taken to several locations. "I couldn't begin to guess how much is out there," he said. "Tons."

Steven Lund, MnDOT state maintenance engineer, said the past three winters have been the most expensive on record for MnDOT's snow and ice removal. Last winter, the agency spent $59 million on the task; the two previous winters it spent $69 million and close to $57 million, respectively.

"I'm sure we're on pace to match or possibly exceed those last three [winters]," Lund said. "It's our biggest individual budget item. We have not changed our operating procedures. Our driver count is relatively the same, the plow count relatively the same."

In Minneapolis, city crews plow snow but don't remove it, Kennedy said. But conditions might force the city to reconsider.

The city recently purchased a snow melter with federal money and may get into the snow-melting business, Kennedy said. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has 42 snow melters, which resemble huge trash bins and can dispose of 40 tons of snow per hour, said spokesman Pat Hogan. The melted snow is sent down the storm drain.

'This isn't bad'

Despite it all, some Twin Cities residents got out and enjoyed the elements.

Karyn Luger, 40, smiled and sweated through the subzero temperature. Running from her home on France Avenue, she jogged through the streets instead of unplowed paths along Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, part of an 8-mile run.

"If it was 25 below, then I'd run inside," she said. "This isn't bad."

Star Tribune staff writers Rose French, Kevin Giles, Chris Havens, Katie Humphrey, Paul Levy, Laurie Blake and Paul Walsh contributed to this report.

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