Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation

Snow removal of any amount requires incredible planning, communication and teamwork. Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation proved that last winter when it implemented its plan to keep the city up and running through the worst snowstorm there in 30 years.

Chicago’s worst blizzard in 30 years also was its most accurately predicted snowstorm. The prediction allowed municipal forces several days to prepare for the worst. Area meteorologists agreed that a major blizzard was heading directly for the city—scheduled to arrive in the middle of the New Year’s holiday weekend.

At the Department of Streets and Sanitation’s “Snow Command,” employees monitored the progress of the storm on Doppler radar as it made its way east across the United States. While the blizzard was still more than 3 days away, its track was so much on target that Commissioner Eileen Carey pulled the trigger on a series of precautionary actions.

First, the city inspected its fleet of 300 salt spreaders to determine the readiness of each vehicle. Those needing work went to Chicago’s fleet-management garages for servicing and repair, thus ensuring every truck’s availability.

Second, nearly 200 garbage trucks were mounted with quick-hitch plows before the holiday weekend so they would be ready to help at a moment’s notice.

At the same time, several city agencies worked together to place more than 25,000 sandbags along the shore of Lake Michigan. In the past, forecasted storms of this magnitude, with gale-force winds, had flooded Lake Shore Drive, a major commuter thoroughfare.

Finally, the city instructed all of its snow drivers (before they left their shifts on New Year’s Eve) to wear their pagers and be prepared for a call-out. This prevented any loss of time trying to locate drivers over the holiday.

By New Year’s Day, the blizzard was barreling toward the city. Then, when it was just hours away, the severity of the forecasts caused Carey to declare a snow emergency even before the first snowflakes arrived.

Because of this emergency declaration, all the salt trucks and quick-hitches were deployed on Chicago’s main streets that Friday evening. More than 100 pieces of heavy construction equipment—high lifts and backhoes and the like—were summoned from other municipal departments (water, sewers and transportation) and sent to their pre-assigned emergency routes. Those routes included residential streets and areas around fire and police stations and hospitals. In addition, 125 contracted, privately owned construction vehicles (previously on standby) were deployed on other side streets.

The entire plow force was in place when the storm began at about 11 p.m. Within 4 hours, the snow accumulated to more than 3 inches. The salt trucks lowered their plows and, along with the construction equipment, began plowing.

Through the night and most of the following day, the blizzard continued to rage with sustained winds and drifting snow that quickly covered the plowed lanes. Only continuous back-and-forth plowing kept the main arteries free from snow. It was impossible to make any lasting progress due to the blowing and drifting snow.

“It was like trying to dig a hole in a pile of sand,” Carey recalled. “The snow rushed to fill in every path we had plowed.”

Finally, the winds moderated early Saturday evening and, even though the snow kept falling, the plows were able to get ahead of it. They reduced the depth of snow to the point that road salt again could be used.

When the blizzard finally ended, it was late Sunday morning, Jan. 3. The main streets were down to bare pavement in the driving lanes. It was the first snowstorm of that magnitude in Chicago’s history that did not paralyze the city for days.

This effort averted a catastrophe. Travel through the city was possible. Stores were able to replenish their stock of food and medicine, commuter buses were able to operate with nearly normal service levels and police, fire-department and hospital vehicles could maneuver along main streets.

However, the side streets were a different story. Most had snow accumulations of nearly 2 feet. Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Snow Command forces considered this an emergency—tens of thousands of residents effectively were trapped in their homes. Senior citizens and people with disabilities, who could not begin to get through such accumulations, were at risk.

All the salt trucks and quick-hitches immediately were dispatched to the side streets to join the contracted construction vehicles. Every truck had the same initial mission: Plow a lane down the center of each side street so emergency vehicles could get through. Thus, people who needed to get out could dig out a path for their cars and reach the nearest arterial street.

This work took the better part of the day. Then the trucks went back and began removing some of the large mounds of snow that the plows created.

The snow-removal portion of this digging-out process was a 24-hour operation. More than 300 tractor/trailers worked with the city staff to haul away excess snow, and more than 700 laborers were hand-shoveling bus stops, intersections and fire hydrants.

Sub-zero temperatures that followed the blizzard complicated snow clearing. The wind chills reached lower than –30°F. Public schools closed for the first two days of the week. Garbage collection stopped for one day because the trucks still were plowing. The city’s human-services agencies assisted record numbers of people who needed shelter from the cold or help getting to hospitals for their medical needs.

When initially removing the snow, workers placed it on every vacant lot and piece of land available—including parks—where it would not endanger the public by blocking views of traffic. Many of these mounds grew into small mountains, 30 to 40 feet high.

However, a better solution became viable several days after the storm, thanks to O’Hare International Airport. Because it is the world’s busiest airport, it has its own snow-removal operation. And because it is dangerous to pile snow along runways, they use snow-melting machines with boiling water that instantly melts the snow. This allows the water to flow down the sewer lines.

Once O’Hare’s cleanup was completed, aviation officials lent several of these machines to Snow Command to melt some of the larger piles of snow in the city.

Removing and melting snow continued for two weeks after the blizzard. This not only relieved travel problems for the public, but also prepared Chicago to cope with additional accumulations in the event of another major storm. The city received another 7 inches of snow during those two weeks, but the new snow came in much smaller amounts and melted with road salt.

Snow removal of any amount requires incredible planning, communication and teamwork. With the efforts of city employees, contracted personnel and airport equipment, Chicago was able to provide for the safety and welfare of its citizens. In addition, the snow-removal effort allowed Chicago (albeit initially at less-than-full capacity) to function and carry on its daily activities. City workers gained a certain amount of pride and fulfillment knowing that, in some way, they provided the city and its citizens with an invaluable service.

Terry Levin is public information officer for the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation.

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