You can’t just shovel it and plow it and blow it and scoop it. You have to have somewhere to put it. And with more than two feet of snow having fallen over the weekend across much of the region, putting it somewhere became a top priority for cities and counties and businesses and schools as they raced to turn the Washington area into a more navigable iceberg.
“It’s challenging, it’s going very slow,” said Richard Dorsey, chief of Montgomery County’s Division of Highway Services.
The county has 800 pieces of equipment plowing, salting and hauling snow along its 5,000 miles of roadway. Seventy percent of the work is being done by contractors who push and plow snow to intersections, where dump trucks are picking it up and moving it to five locations across the county.
Snowplows get all the attention, but front-end loaders and dump trucks are the unheralded soldiers of snow-removal campaigns. Otherwise the piles grow ever-higher, making it impossible for pedestrians to cross streets and for children to wait at corner bus stops.
At Reagan National Airport, snow-removal crews worked through the weekend pushing snow into two huge peaks at the north and south ends of the airport. Front-end loaders attacked the piles, dumping the snow into a tractor-trailer-size melter that fed into a storm drain. All of the runoff would be filtered before leaving the property, said Kimberly Gibbs, a Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority spokeswoman.
“People think we just have to clear the runways, but we also have taxiways, gates, parking lots,” Gibbs said. “There’s a lot involved in getting us back up to normal.” The airport reopened for business at 6 a.m. Monday.
For the District’s removal efforts, all roads led to RFK Stadium, where the vast parking lot was the primary receiving ground for dump trucks carting away the city’s snowy surplus.
On Sunday afternoon, Luis Blanco bumpety-bumped down Benning Road in Northeast Washington in an aging Ford dump truck loaded with snow, turned right on Oklahoma Avenue NE and headed to RFK’s parking lot No. 7. There he joined a never-ending caravan of carriers moving snow from all across the city, transforming the topography of the RFK lot from prairie flat to Alpine wonder. By the time all the snow is dumped here, they may want to add ski lifts.
Blanco guided his truck through the gate, joining a long line of heavily laden haulers as they moved in a clunkily choreographed mechanical ballet. They approached the mountain of snow, pulled past it and then backed up, beep-beeping and belching exhaust. Blanco, who was working a 12-hour shift, pushed a button and the truck unloaded its haul. The truck felt a few tons lighter. Bulldozers immediately started pushing the new snow into old snow and Blanco pulled away to do it all over again. At $25 an hour, snow is money for the 46-year-old from Hyattsville, who emigrated from El Salvador 30 years ago.
“For me, it’s good,” he said. “But I feel bad for the people who can’t work because of the snow. That’s going to be hard for them.”
And so he bumpety-bumped back down Benning Road to move another load, joining the thousands of workers helping the region rediscover the asphalt and sidewalks that had gone missing for days.
On Monday, the District announced it was stepping up its snow-removal efforts and enlisting help from across the country to clear its streets. A giant snow melter was being brought in from Indiana and convoys of trucks were headed to the city to help out.
“We are going to continue to reach out across the country to bring in crews and folks and equipment that we need to get us back to where we need to be,” said Chris Geldart, the District’s director of homeland security and emergency services.
The Indiana supermelter is being brought in to turn the mountain of snow at RFK into water, Geldart said. It will not stay a mountain for long.
But there’s still plenty of snow-removal work left to do in the city. Geldart estimates that even with 650 pieces of equipment on the District’s streets, only about a quarter of the snow that needs to be moved has been transported.
“To get everything in the city done, we’re probably looking into next week,” he said.
And could he offer a guess as to how much snow the city will end up moving before it’s all done?
“A buttload,” Geldart said.
That’s an unofficial estimate, of course.
At George Mason University in Fairfax, the largest public university in the state, the push was on to reopen the school. That challenge was made more difficult given that the vast majority of the school’s 34,000 students live off campus and more than half of them have cars, putting parking at a premium. Workers have been plowing snow from parking lots, trying to make as many of the school’s 7,300 surface spots available as possible.
Parking on a college campus is always a problem, and the school estimates that the storm has reduced its parking availability by about 15 to 20 percent, university spokesman Michael Sandler said. You just can’t make all of that snow disappear.
“Most of the roadways on campus have been cleared, so the real issue for us is clearing the lots,” Sandler said. “That’s a factor in whether we can reopen.”
Plows, front-end loaders and bobcats are tackling the piles of snow and trying to move it off the lots, or at least shove it as far back as it can go. Despite the relentless snow-removal efforts, however, school officials decided Monday afternoon to cancel Tuesday’s classes.
In hard-hit Montgomery County, the record snowfall inspired county officials to do a little math. If the 28.5-inch average across the county was removed from roads and piled on a football field, it would reach five miles high, said Dorsey, the county’s transportation chief. For now, he dreams of summer and remains optimistic.
“Hopefully, in two weeks we’ll never know that it snowed,” he says.
What if it snows again?
Dorsey, who has been working nonstop since Wednesday, laughed. But it wasn’t a happy laugh.
“I don’t want to think about that,” he said.
None of us do, Mr. Dorsey. None of us do.
Aaron Davis contributed to this report.