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At command center, D.C. officials mobilize against the blizzard

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010; A09

Gabe Klein woke up late Tuesday afternoon from a 30-minute catnap on a Red Cross cot he had set up in his sixth-floor office at the District's Frank D. Reeves Government Center.

The director of the District Department of Transportation -- hair unkempt, black snow boots off for the brief slumber -- had to get ready. The start of a second snowstorm in four days was minutes away, promising to put the region already smacked by mounds of snow into a deeper freeze.

So Klein tied up his boots and poured himself a mug of cold Honest Tea. "I was drinking so much coffee I was getting jittery," he said as he headed to the main command center on the seventh floor.

From a space the size of a large living room, a team of District officials representing DDOT, Public Works, Fire and Emergency Medical Services, Homeland Security and Emergency Management and other agencies oversees a snow-removal operation that includes 700 employees, 265 snowplows and trucks, 82 plow routes and 190 cameras monitoring intersections and roads.

They sit in a V-formation, and they do it in the dark.

Screens are illuminated, such as a TV tuned to the Weather Channel and a digital snow map updating conditions on each of the plow routes. They can see which streets are salted, plowed or untouched.

Why one street gets plowed and another doesn't depends on a set of factors. Highways, main corridors and designated snow emergency routes are cleared first for emergency and public safety vehicles. Then, the side streets get plowed. If someone gets stuck on a side street, a snowplow driver might decide to skip the impediment and move on to the next block.

Residents whose streets have not been plowed complain to the command center by phone, e-mail or Twitter. John Lisle, spokesman for the Department of Public Works, and Karyn Le Blanc, spokeswoman for DDOT, take turns answering tweets. Two dozen people -- many surviving on Rice Krispies treats, rainbow-colored Goldfish or the McDonald's across the street -- rotate to monitor complaints in 12-hour shifts.

The plow drivers are so vital that the city has about 500 of them in hotels near plow depots so they won't get stuck at home. "They're our most important asset. If we don't take care of them, we're never going to get through this," said Robert Marsili, citywide program manager, also known as Snowman.

Last week's snowstorm and the freezing temperatures that followed took a toll on the equipment and exhausted crews. The city also ran low on salt and sent convoys of trucks to Baltimore, where drivers picked up salt that came from other states and countries. "You've got Chilean salt, Peruvian salt, domestic salt," Marsili said.

Paulette Franklin, a staff assistant who would normally be involved in project management, was responsible for tracking the tons of salt going out in each truck. "I always refer to myself as the money lady," she said. Salt equals money.

On the same wall as the Weather Channel, a screen takes up nearly a third of the space, displaying intersections caught by the 190 cameras. A smaller TV shows more. Four at a time, the roads and corners pop onto the screens -- from Georgia Avenue and Kansas Avenue NW to Pennsylvania and Southern avenues NE.

The images are grainy, but a green street sign is noticeable, as is a passerby in an orange parka. But everyone in the room wants to see one color: black.

"We're looking for black asphalt," Marsili said.

That's what he saw on the screens Tuesday afternoon. Then, around 4:20 p.m., white specks began appearing. "It's starting to come down now, and we should start putting salt down," he said into the phone. "I'm looking at the cameras. I don't know what you see. . . . The pavement's all wet. It's time."

By late Tuesday and Wednesday morning? White. Blizzard conditions.

There were few calls Wednesday about snow removal. People were calling about downed trees. Plow drivers were in trouble. A front-end loader was stuck on Todd Street NE. Safety officer Quentin Henderson, who had been dreading such a call, went into the blizzard to check. "No visibility," he said. "I don't want to be in an accident and have to investigate myself."

On Wednesday, a new team sat in the dark room, with a few familiar faces, such as Le Blanc, Franklin and Jeff Marootian, who was in charge of the command center. "These are the people who could walk here," he said.

"I see black!" he said when Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue flashed on the screen, a hopeful sign that the plows were making headway.

Franklin, who told a fire official that 100 truckloads of salt came in overnight, called over to Marootian.

"Jeff, you think it's going to be two more days?" she asked.

"You know, Paulette, I don't know."

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