Now If New Haven Were Syracuse ...

Paul Bass PhotoEight tri-axle dump trucks lined up to help return Woodward Avenue to normalcy five days after Winter Storm Nemo buried it. In cities more accustomed to big blizzards, monster snow-removal vehicles might have arrived earlier—with plow “wings” on the side.

Rob Smuts talked about that as he watched the final widening of Woodward Avenue’s plowing Thursday. And he offered some explanations.

The dump trucks and payloader arrived as part of a sweep of major through-roads around town that previously had been cleared of just a single lane so emergency vehicles could get through in the wake of last weekend’s historic 34-inch blizzard. Now the roads were plowed wide enough for cars to drive safely in both directions, as New Haven seemed finally to return to a semblance of normal.

Smuts, New Haven’s chief administrative officer, has spent pretty much every waking hour since before Nemo hit directing the city’s response. As ambulances and fire trucks and police cars got stuck at the height of the blizzard, then as the city struggled to dig out from the biggest New Haven snowfall since 1888, Smuts has been the calm in the center of the storm. He has calmly responded to endless crises and curve balls as well as to complaints of citizens demanding faster removal.

And he has learned about upstate New York communities like Watertown or Syracuse, where winters with 100-plus-inches of snow are common.

Those places are more accustomed to getting feet of snow dumped on them. So they have more advanced equipment to handle huge mounds of the sort that paralyzed New Haven during the peak of Nemo’s wrath.

Wings & Vs

As the caravan of trucks passed on Woodward, Smuts observed how the clean-up might have been different here with the same kind of equipment that towns have further north.

Click on the play arrow at the top of the story to watch Smuts explain the differences. (Ian Applegate contributed the animated video outro.)

With climate change threatening to make these once-in-a-century storms more common (we’ve had five huge storm emergencies in the past two years), New Haven will confront the question of how much money to invest in some of that equipment. At up to $200,000 apiece, and with 22 plowing districts in New Haven, the pricetag could grow into the tens of millions of dollars depending on how much more prepared New Haven wants to be.

When it comes to widening the road passageways after the initial post-storm pass-throughs—as was occurring Thursday on Woodward—New Haven relied on payloaders to scoop up the huge mounds and then on the tri-axle trucks to transport them to final resting places like East Shore Park and Marginal Drive.

The more blizzard-accustomed northern cities will employ a lead truck with a “wing plow” on the side that first pushes the top three feet or so of a steep snowbank to the side, Smuts said. That creates a shorter “snow shelf.” Some of those trucks have a second wing as well. Another truck follows to handle the shorter snowbank.

New Haven’s Class 8 trucks, its biggest plows, can’t really handle snowbanks taller than three feet.

The big trucks up north also often have V-shaped plows. That makes a big difference, Smuts said. “That’s to create a path down the middle” of the street amid big snows, he said. “Our plows are more flat. You can put them at a little angle. But when you have too much snow in front of them, even when they’re on an angle, they can’t keep going. And so we have a lot of plow trucks get stuck in the storm.”

Unsecret ShopperAlso, those northern cities generally have a lot more payloaders to clear mounds of snow. New Haven has four. By Sunday, it had 26 on hand, temporarily, to tackle Nemo.

And their payloaders often have snowblower attachments (pictured). They blow the snow to the side instead of just pushing it.

Not Just Equipment

Smuts cited another big difference between New Haven’s response to a three-foot snowfall and the responses up north: How people act.

People more accustomed to those blizzards “understand when they cannot just drive through” all that snow without getting stuck. Lots of drivers ventured onto New Haven’s unplowed or barely plowed post-Nemo streets to “sight-see,” Smuts noted. All over town they got stuck and prevented emergency crews from getting to people who needed help—and prevented the plows New Haven does have from getting going on clearing the streets. (Click here to read about that.) “People getting used to the snow and knowing what to do,” Smuts said, will make an incalculable difference on its own the next time a Nemo-like blizzard unleashes its wrath on New Haven.

Past Episodes of “Rob Smuts Explains”:

Rob Smuts Explains Your Sidewalk.
Rob Smuts Explains The Thermostat
Rob Smuts Explains Potholes, Part II
Rob Smuts Explains Haste On Trash Plan
Rob Smuts Explains The Pothole Menace
Rob Smuts Explains Cop Overtime
Rob Smuts Explains Your Garbage
Rob Smuts Explains The Search
Rob Smuts Explains The Fire Department

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posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on February 15, 2013  1:46pm

OK I really want to know more about that picture of the payloader+snowblower in the middle of the article. Did you just get it off Google Images or something?

posted by: CreatingUrgency on February 15, 2013  2:14pm

Why not use the Emergency Broadcast System? The school district has an ALL CALL system. Use that. The city has a FB page. So does the school district. Don’t they have a reverse 911 line? We have so many stop-gaps but it just becomes Swiss cheese when NONE of them are used.

A simple “We know you are all waking up to this. Please stay off the roads. We are working diligently to get the roads clear.” would work.

posted by: anonymous on February 15, 2013  3:17pm

The streets and sidewalks around Yale, City Hall, and the I-95 off ramps were fine. 

Those areas got clear, even though bus stops for low income residents without a car (i.e. most of the city) were unusable and families still have to walk in the middle of the road, a week later.

posted by: Nathan on February 15, 2013  3:20pm

I saw on of those payloaders with blower working the bridge on The Blvd last night, hopefully ducting the massive amount of flying snow away from the railroad tracks below.

posted by: Curious on February 15, 2013  5:16pm

Anonymous, that is an outright lie.  I live downtown, and City Hall and Yale were still being dug out on Tuesday, well AFTER the bus stops on the Green had been cleared. 

The parking spaces on both sides of Chapel were not cleared until Wednesday morning, when payloaders were crawling down the street, and many of those retail properties have Yale as a landlord, from what I understand.

I also challenge your assertion that “most residents of the city” are low-income and without a car.

posted by: Carl Goldfield on February 15, 2013  7:48pm

I’m with Curious. After a snow storm, every neighborhood in the City is convinced that some other neighborhood is getting plowed and they are being ignored. My neighbor stopped me this morning when I was walking the dog to engage me in this kind of paranoid/conspiracy thinking. I tried to disabuse him but I know it fell on deaf ears-he drove off convinced that our street has been ignored while other secondary streets elsewhere in the City have been thoroughly plowed.

As to the notion that the DeStefano Administration ignores the needs of the poor or minority populations (and I’m not restricting myself to snow removal here)-it is offensive and slanderous. I was in many private meetings with the Mayor, his staff, department heads et. al. where anything could have been said and the overriding concern was always with the disadvantaged. I often felt that it was the interests of middle class taxpayers that was being given short shrift.

posted by: alexey on February 15, 2013  8:09pm

Keeping in mind that this was an historic storm, the City should conduct a forensic review of the storm response and decide what changes in its notifications and responses should be made.

I’ve heard suggestions for improved communications—working to make sure everyone has all of their phone numbers (including cells) entered into the city data base, communication by text, email, Facebook and other social media.  Those should be explored.

It doesn’t matter what information is disseminated if people do not respond.  Folks refusing to move their cars to designated lots, staying off the storm during the worst of it, etc.  Carrots v. sticks.

I believe that information needs to be targeted more specifically and in real time, in terms of what streets are being and have been plowed.  At one point, there was still technically a ban on a major thoroughfare, although that street had just been plowed curb-to-curb.  So, once it is plowed, is the ban still in effect?  We need more dynamic information.

Also, a directive such as a city-wide travel ban is not constructive (except perhaps during the height of a blizzard).  It only invites some level of defiance as people need to get about.  While common sense should rule, it did not.  I’m not sure you can legislate it.

Ideas such as chains for police cars and ambulances should be considered.  A major problem was the white out late Friday night that j brought every effort to a total standstill.  Again, I am unsure we can rig everyone for the absolute worst, but some planning would be in order.

The city cannot stack its public works department with a Syracuse level of equipment, but a plan for quicker transition to help from the likes of Laydon and other contractors would be prudent.

I seem to remember that many years ago, a group from Yale worked on developing a better plan for how the streets are plowed.  This work should be revisited, with specific goals in mind, in terms of how many streets can be plowed the most efficiently and in what order.  Feedback from the folks who actually do the plowing should be taken into account.  There probably is a better way to do it.  The summer is the time to sit back and get all of this input and plan for the winter.

Thanks to all the workers!

posted by: anonymous on February 15, 2013  8:18pm

Curious, after spending time in at least a half dozen different city neighborhoods in the past week, I disagree. As I said, areas around City Hall and Yale are clear now, whereas most bus stops and sidewalks are still not usable. Regarding income, if you are one of the lucky few who is employed by Yale, the City, or a place such as CMHC or a Downtown Bank, with a free parking spot, you likely do not have a sense of what people living in our city really earn or how they get around. The majority of city residents would be considered “low income” by any national standard, and in the central neighborhoods we’re talking about it’s more than two thirds. Regarding cars, only about half of the working age adults living here are currently employed and commuting using a car or carpool each day. Add to that the 30,000 or so children who are too young for a drivers license, plus the elderly residents. If we can agree on the facts, perhaps we can begin to treat people who live here with a bit more respect.

posted by: Wildwest on February 15, 2013  8:36pm

Curious- do you live in town and actually venture out often? Do you know the stats on how many rentals in New Haven are section 8? anonymous was just stating some facts.

The best quote so far during this storm period was from the guy in Fair Haven who said something like “I wish the governor came to Fair Haven more often after a big storm” which was referring to the fact that the main streets were clear on Saturday and the side streets did not get touched for DAYS after. This is of course after their 100th passes on the main roads.

posted by: Rich Hanley on February 16, 2013  10:58am

The city simply needs to apply for federal Homeland Security grants for emergency snow-clearance equipment instead of for armored SWAT vehicles and associated combat-ready armaments and ordinance to address the present and future climate situation. For too long we have failed to treat climate change as the existential threat it represents.

posted by: Rich Hanley on February 16, 2013  12:05pm

Quick correction to my earlier post. It should read “ordnance” not “ordinance” as stated in my post. Sorry.

posted by: Curious on February 18, 2013  11:26am

Anon, Wildwest, I live on one end of Chapel and work at the other, and I walk that stretch of road four times a day.  Wildwest, anon makes a LOT of claims, and without something to back them up, they are not FACTS, they are opinions.

Anon, I don’t know where you get the idea that Yale, CMHC, and City Hall employees all get free parking.  You’re 100% wrong on that.  Most Yale medical school and hospital staff have to spend their own money to buy parking.  Have you ever been to CMHC?  There are maybe 40 parking spots, for at least 700 staff.  Every Yale employee I know that works here pays for parking, whether they are research support or faculty.

Here’s a link to our staff directory, almost 100 pages.

Here’s an aerial view of our building…you can count the spots easily.

Also, of all the organizations in New Haven, why have a beef with CMHC and lump it in with the banks?

posted by: fastdriver on February 23, 2013  12:47am

I don’t know who is checking what streets that were half plowed and what neighbors still have not shoveled their sidewalks, but the East Shore, as usual, leaves a lot to be desired. You can call us complainers and whatever other descriptive words you want to use, but the facts speak for themselves. Calling the Mayor’s Office AND Public Works did NOTHING to alleviate my concerns! Am I surprised? NOT in the least. It’s exactly what I expected- NOTHING!