Removing lots and lots of snow


January 13, 2022

Jess Field / Petersburg Pilot

With no good place left to dump snow around town, borough workers loaded mounds of record snowfall into trucks for hauling away.

Leaving his warm house and family behind at 2:30 a.m., during winter months in order to plow snow can be downright taxing for Martin Odegaard. The Public Works (PW) foreman lives out on Cabin Creek, and he's no stranger to putting chains on his pickup just to make it to work. Recently, it took him a half hour to complete the three-mile drive, no joke.

"I know the road pretty well, know what to look for, and I've always got it figured out how I'm gonna make it in," Odegaard says. "Always made it."

Odegaard says the five member crew begins preparing for winter conditions in November and then runs an on-call schedule that rotates every week. If snow comes they always try to have a plow dropped on the streets by 3 a.m., clearing critical areas first, like the fire hall, hospital, commuter and school bus routes. Then once those areas are deemed done, the priority becomes parking lots and side streets.

Getting to sidewalks and high-traffic pedestrian areas is something PW always tries to chip away at, but this year resources have really been pushed to the limit for the crew. Odegaard also realizes berms can be an issue in the community and asks for residents to please be patient with the process.

Odegaard's family knows that he enjoys his job and loves the fun of "playing with big equipment." His young kids think his job is cool and understand he's working for the whole town. They are prideful of the fact, and like talking with their friends about what roads their dad plows. But Odegaard's life wouldn't be what it is if it weren't for the two guys keeping everything he and his crew operate running. He says, the dedication and hard work of Sam Hoschar and Joe Poling deserves more praise.

"We've got a really good staff of mechanics here..." he says. "They are working weekends, they are working nights, they are waking up the guys at Napa, and Piston and Rudder, for hose fittings or parts and pieces. Doing whatever they gotta do to keep this stuff on the road because it is important."

Keeping an eye on several different forecasts to gain insight into upcoming weather conditions is a priority for PW director Chris Cotta. While he cannot say if one source is better than any of the others, he definitely likes it when they agree. That way the Borough can be reasonably sure what to expect when facing multiple winter weather advisories like Petersburg has this winter.

"These snowfalls we've been having recently have been way outside of what we normally expect to experience," Cotta says. "That's why we've been struggling a little bit, because it is way more than our system is set up to deal with on a routine basis."

Cotta says the city's equipment is built to handle snow levels of eight to 10 inches or less, but anything double that, like the stuff that has hit Mitkof Island lately, pushes it to the max. The road grader, for instance, is a heavy piece of equipment. However, heavy, wet snow building up in front of its blade often wins out, lifting the operator, who ends up riding over the of the snow rather than removing it, he says.

To tackle this problem and speed up removal efforts in such conditions, the Borough would need to purchase a specialized piece of equipment. Cotta says, the issue there is gearing up and investing in something that might only get used, maybe, a couple times every decade. And that's a question that'll have to be addressed during the budget process.

"When there is a major event like this a lot of folks will ask: Why aren't things happening faster?" Cotta says. "And really the honest answer to that is, we budget and staff for normal conditions or a little outside of normal conditions."

For Cotta, communicating and coordinating with the Department of Transportation (DOT) manager Barry Youngberg is also a must, even though their individual responsibilities are clearly defined. PW and DOT share multiple snow dump areas where larger piles get put prior to being moved. Last week, DOT took their turn removing a bunch of snow from the South Harbor parking lot and this week PW is doing its part to return the favor.

You might have noticed Reid Brothers' trucks going in and out of there the last couple days. That's because when the borough got behind on clearing snow dumps, it reached out to private contractors for some assistance, Cotta says. Yet another unexpected financial expense.

"That's costing the borough, obviously, but we felt like we needed to bring on some other resources to help us get caught up," he says.

What really didn't help was having to divert personnel from street removal to shoveling snow off the roof of the Municipal Building. Structures at the PW yard also needed attention to ensure things there were kept safe and running smoothly.

"Again, that's not something that we budget or staff for, but we did have to assist with," Cotta says.

The importance of getting fire hydrants unburied in a timely manner is also in the forefront of the PW director's thoughts. The Borough is making some headway, but Cotta is aware there is still a long way to go. Other organizations like the Petersburg Indian Association have an agreement with PW to handle quite a bit of that responsibility, but unfortunately they have been short-staffed this winter and unable to do much, he says.

Last Thursday Devren Bennett, owner of Homeport Electronics, told Nick Espeseth to take the day off so he could remove snow from the roof of his family's home. And when Espeseth needed more time to finish working above the living room, he got Friday off, as well. The boss was willing to chip in, but that didn't shock Espeseth.

"Devren and I are firefighters and it's just a brotherly thing," he says. "He offered his help and assistance, but I was like, I got it."

And so Espeseth tackled the task solo. He says, the worst part was the dealing with the ice dams next to the eaves and gutters.

"They had ripped down my gutters, rendered them useless," he says. "So, I was sitting there with a 10 or 12-lb splitting maul on the roof, breaking them off so it would stop leaking from my upper story, into my kitchen, down to my shop."

Besides dealing with leaks, removing the various layers of crusty top snow with powder sandwiched between more crusty layers of snow wasn't much fun either. But Espeseth feels losing a little income was very necessary.

"I was keeping my family safe," he says, of his wife Rhea, and two sons ages 10 and 15 years old.

If you've called Al's Backhoe Service lately looking to get snow out of your driveway or have some sand spread, you most likely spoke with Al's wife, Beth Richards. This year the couple celebrates their 50th wedding anniversary. And even after half a century together she doesn't mind waking up early in the morning to make sure Al has his oatmeal, toast with poached eggs and coffee to start the day.

Al takes tea for the road and he fondly calls his backhoe, "Momma," Beth says. And if his backhoe is needing a little extra ummphf while working, he's been known to encourage it out loud by going, "Come on Momma! You can do it, you can do it, Momma!" Al loves what he does, Beth says.

The man is 74 years old, never plans to quit working, and typically averages 10 to 12 hour days during winter months. And this go around, so far, his duties included responding to a stretch of bad weather at three in the morning and not shutting down until 36 hours later.

Al's Backhoe Service has numerous contracts they fulfill throughout the day by clearing snow or sanding. Sometimes a location will need to be visited twice in a day, and that's when having Lyle Bennett on the team to run additional equipment and take some of the load off of Al helps. Beth readily admits it is hard to imagine how busy her husband has been this winter.

Lizzie Thompson / Petersburg Pilot

Plowed snow packed along the roadside was piled as high as a stop sign after Saturday's latest storm.

"One time he left at about seven o'clock in the morning, had his breakfast, and I didn't see him until about nine o'clock that night," she says. "He came home and ate something, took a half hour nap or so, left again, and I didn't see him again until three o'clock the next afternoon."

The couple doesn't have much conversation time these days. Al might call in and ask Beth a quick question about a customer, but other than that she usually doesn't hear from or see him until whenever he comes home. By then he is famished and a "big grumbling bear" because he's hungry, and after eating heads straight to bed. But Beth knows how to make the time she gets with her husband fun.

"I'll tell you a running joke we've had the last couple days, because I haven't seen him so much," she says. "I told him, I said, 'I think you're having a love affair, you're gone so much, do you have a hoe on the side?'"

To which, Al responded, perfectly, with the classic comeback, "Don't you talk about my Momma like that!"


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