POSTED ON DECEMBER 15, 2010:
Tulsa wrams up its frost force before the snow blows
Winter Warning. “…if you have an SUV, it’s four-wheel drive, not four-wheel stop,” said Strizek.
Though the memories of Tulsa's fabled Dec. 9, 2007, ice storm that left tens of thousands of residents without power for days because of downed power lines have begun to fade after three years, the event is never far from the mind of one City of Tulsa employee.
"I worked 102 days in a row after the ice storm," said Paul Strizek, facilities maintenance planning and contracts manager for the city's Public Works Department, explaining that the cleanup of downed tree limbs became a bigger issue than the storm itself. "You get kind of addicted to it."
Strizek counts that event as perhaps the most memorable one he's worked in 33 years with the city. The Public Works veteran now serves as one of three senior managers who oversee the city's around-the-clock response to winter storms, deciding how and when the city's resources will be put into action.
Keeping the streets clear of downed tree limbs after the ice storm was perhaps the biggest challenge the department has faced during his tenure, Strizek said. The ice melted within a few days, but limbs kept snapping off damaged trees for a long time afterward, he said.
The crisis atmosphere in Strizek's department lasted almost as long, he said.
"When that big ice storm was finally over, myself and Dan Crossland (the city's facilities maintenance director) looked at each other and said, 'What, we have to go back to normal, everyday life now?'" he said, laughing.
The city hasn't faced a winter storm of that magnitude since then, Strizek said, though the blizzard that hit Tulsa last Christmas Eve wasn't easy to handle.
The 150 employees who make up the department haven't had to put their street-clearing skills to work yet this year, but when they do, they'll have the following resources at their disposal: 9,600 tons of salt, 55 truck-mounted sand-salt spreaders, 38 truck-mounted snow plows, four motor graders for use as plows and one truck-mounted liquid de-icer spraying unit.
The City Council also recently approved the purchase of an additional $300,000 in salt, but that transaction has not taken place yet, according to city spokesman Bob Bledsoe.
Strizek said the city has 110 drivers who are split into two 55-driver, 12-hour shifts during a winter storm. They cover 35 routes that total 1,750 lane-miles.
The balance of the department's employees is split between those who load and maintain the vehicles, office workers who keep track of where the drivers are and the managers who direct the department's efforts.
The work begins as soon as warnings of a winter storm are issued several days out. As the storm approaches, Strizek said he and the other two senior managers monitor the weather constantly, checking conditions at remote stations around the city that track pavement temperature and precipitation.
"If we hear there's a chance of a storm on a Monday, we're paying attention (on Thursday)," he said. "All our employees know if there's a storm coming, they're going to need to work. We want to be out there and rolling if snow or ice begins to fall. We'd rather be overly cautious than get caught unprepared."
The city has two street maintenance yards from which drivers operate -- one at 450 W. 23rd Street west of the Arkansas River and the other at 5675 S. Garnett.
"The only thing we have to decide is when we're going to fire it off," he said of the street-clearing effort, adding that as soon as the first drivers hit the streets, that initiates the 12-hour shifts that will prevail until the storm is over.
Drivers are equipped with a complete set of computer-generated, color-coded maps that highlight the locations of schools, bridges, hills and hospitals. Strizek said the maps have evolved from the crude, hand-drawn versions that were issued when he began with the department more than three decades ago.
"That's a planning tool that really helps," he said.
The street-clearing effort itself depends on the circumstances of the storm, Strizek said. It can consist of spraying de-icer solution to keep the precipitation from freezing to the pavement, spreading warm salt to provide traction and help the melting process, and plowing to clear the roads. But the latter step isn't initiated as soon as snow starts falling, he said.
"Once we get two inches or more, we start plowing, particularly if we know a lot more is coming," he said. "But more often than not, we're doing both (spreading and plowing)."
As the drivers hit the streets, office workers and managers are keeping track of their progress via radio.
"We want to know who's where, when they're there, when they're in the yard and when they're going back out," he said. "We keep a tape of that, plus a handwritten log."
The department is responsible for clearing the city's main arterial streets, along with two sections of highway -- the L.L. Tisdale Expressway from downtown to 36th Street North and a 2.5-mile section of the Gilcrease Expressway from the Tisdale Expressway to U.S. 75. All other highways, he said, are the responsibility of the state Department of Transportation.
Strizek said the department pays particular attention to the bridges over the Arkansas River for which it is responsible, as well as downtown bridges over the railroad tracks.
When a storm strikes, Strizek said the first priority of his drivers is to spray the streets with a saline solution.
"One of the main things we try to do is keep the snow from bonding to the pavement," he said. "If we can keep a saline layer between the snow and the pavement, that makes things a lot better. Once (frozen precipitation) is down, it's like concrete and becomes even harder to remove."
One thing local drivers aren't likely to see during a winter storm is sand, he said.
"We don't use sand unless, god forbid, we're low on salt," Strizek said. "The last time we used sand was during the storm of Jan. 16-25, 2007, and it cost us almost a million dollars to sweep it up."
He said the tab for that cleanup eventually was covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Tulsa was declared a disaster area. But he noted it was money that still came out of the pockets of taxpayers.
Generally speaking, he said, a driver will be able to return to the maintenance yard every two hours or so to pick up a fresh load of salt, meaning that during a typical 12-hour shift, he or she can make five or six runs. If everything goes well, Strizek said, it takes all the drivers 10 to 12 hours to plow and salt one lane of every arterial street in the city one time.
Strizek's drivers also pay particular attention to the streets around hospitals, he said, explaining that emergency vehicles often approach or leave the facilities by a route other than an arterial street.
"We consider ourselves a life-saving operation," he said. "We're there to protect lives and property. I know a lot of people don't think of us that way, but we're kind of in the same business as the police and fire departments."
Strizek said his drivers periodically will clear a non-arterial street but only at the request of the police or fire department.
"Generally, we stay out of residential neighborhoods because we don't have the resources," he said.
Strizek said he hopes Tulsa residents realize how difficult a task his drivers face.
"The driving is nerve wracking and really takes a lot of energy out of you," he said. "The trucks are huge, and we're driving in the snow, too ... our drivers are dealing with all the other drivers who are out there cramping your lane, texting and speeding."
Strizek compared the stress of driving a road-clearing truck during a winter storm to taking a long trip with a carload of children during bad weather.
He also had a special message for Tulsa drivers who labor under the mistaken impression that their four-wheel drive vehicle makes them immune to adverse conditions.
"If you have an SUV, it's four-wheel drive, not four-wheel stop," he said. "You watch. After the first winter weather event this year, I guarantee you 80 percent of the vehicles on the side of the road will be SUVs because they seem to think they have a heightened sense of the stability of their vehicles."
Strizek talks about the challenges of a winter storm with a fair amount of relish, even explaining sheepishly how he once wrecked a city vehicle when he tried to drive up Elwood Avenue near Turkey Mountain during a winter storm one year. Keeping local drivers safe during one of those events is something that provides him with a sense of satisfaction.
"Exactly," he said. "Like we say, 'We're going to the big dance.' It's a strange phenomenon. We don't exactly look forward to it, but we know what's going to happen, and we're prepared for it. It's why we're here."
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