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For snow crews, patience — and salt — are essential

Roger Overcast and other snow-removal workers of the Overland Public Works Department took to the streets Sunday in Overland Park.
Roger Overcast and other snow-removal workers of the Overland Public Works Department took to the streets Sunday in Overland Park. Special to the Star

As snowfall begins to whiten the pavement, Paul West moves his truck along Nall Avenue at a conservative 30 mph, consistently maintaining his speed to spread his payload: about 10 tons of salt and magnesium.

West, an Overland Park public works employee and member of the city’s streets maintenance crew, was beginning a 12-hour shift of street treatment and, if necessary, snow removal Sunday night. The city has 2,000 total lane miles to keep clear, and crews — 60 city staffers running a citywide snow removal operation with 42 trucks — were all over it Sunday.

With the forecast predicting 3 to 4 inches, workers began treating the roads at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, before a flake had fallen. When West’s shift ended at 7:30 a.m., another crew working a 12-hour shift would relieve him and the rest of the overnight snow removal team.

At just after 8 p.m., there is less than an inch of accumulation on the road and the roads are deserted but West moves his truck slowly. A truck turning onto Nall Avenue from Interstate 435 a half a block in front of him fishtails wildly before straightening out.

“See, that guy’s probably trying to beat the storm,” West says, driving over the cursive of the tire marks. “Buddy, you already hit it.”

Inside a cabin lit by the cool blue of his control panel and the regular flick of the truck’s orange warning lights, West’s truck gets drowsy warm. It’s a necessity if you don’t want ice building on the windshield, West explains — so he keeps the window cracked for a fresh supply of cool air to keep him sharp.

“But you can’t really fight it, so I go back to the shop and chill when I need to, or grab a Monster,” he says.

Aside from the computer and intermittent radio chatter from the dispatchers, or “500-A” as West and the other trucks call the administrators when summoning them on the snow removal team’s shared frequency, much of it is just time and patience.

Sunday’s forecast calls for 300 pounds of salt per street mile and a light application of liquid magnesium, a chemical enhancer to the salt. At about $50 per ton, the city budgets about $365,000 a year for salt.

West would go down an untreated lane and return down the road from the opposite direction, working his way in toward the median.

West’s truck is outfitted with two plows, an 11-foot plow at the front and an eight-foot wing plow on the starboard side. Sunday was West’s fourth snow event this year (and the city’s seventh), but actual plowing has only occurred on one of them. On the others, chemical treatment was enough to keep the roads clean.

About 9:30 p.m. he finishes treating the section of Nall Avenue between 103rd and 119th streets. Not seeing enough snow to drop his plow, he heads back to the public works’ north location, the Dennis Garrett Facility, at 11300 W. 91st St., for a quick break and to see if that would change.

Although the forecast called for up to 4 inches of snow, West remains skeptical.

“You ever heard of the Tonganoxie Split’?” he asks, referring to the small town in Leavenworth County about 30 miles northwest of Overland Park. West claims the area has a history of changing, cleaving or redirecting weather systems it makes contact with.

West offers no explanation for the phenomena outside of vague Native American-associated myths.

“It’s an Indian thing. It sounds crazy, but I’ve personally seen it,” he says.

Barring superstition, public works was prepared for the relatively light forecast to change at any time. Overland Park Public Works Director Tony Hofmann has a snow removal team of 140 workers, 50 of whom comes from other city departments.

All told, the three shifts on Sunday deployed around 500 tons of salt on an estimated 3,300 miles of road, meaning some city streets were given multiple passes with the snow trucks. The National Weather Service recorded 2 inches of snowfall in Overland Park, and 3 inches in Olathe.

Most of the truck fleet was deployed without incident except for Roger Overcast’s truck, which had to be returned to the shop due to a malfunctioning treatment dispenser. Bill Hills, the public works fleet maintenance supervisor, said mechanical failures are rare with current models of trucks, which hasn’t always been the case.

As of Monday afternoon, public works employees were continuing to plow residential areas south of College Boulevard.

On Monday night, Hofmann’s crews were ready for another light dusting and were on call in case anything serious happened.

Hofmann said the snow crews’ primary focus is ensuring Overland Park’s streets are safe and navigable.

“Our number one priority is making sure everyone gets through,” Hofmann said.

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