The Anatomy of a Snow Storm

How Somerville Digs Itself Out

By Kristen Grieco

Photos by G. Telci

The trees are shaking off the last remnants of their leaves on a mid-November afternoon, and that means it’s time for the Somerville DPW yard to be converted into Snow Central. A cluster of yellow plows waits to be affixed to pickup trucks and ten-wheelers. Roughly 1,500 tons of road salt sit in a mountain blocking the view from Department of Public Works Commissioner Stan Koty’s second-floor office. It’s not a pretty sight, but let’s face it: Winter in New England isn’t so pretty itself.

But when it comes to the fluffy (icy, slushy, packed down, blocking-your-driveway-and-making-it-impossible-to-get-to-work-on-time) white stuff, Koty may as well be Somerville’s Wizard of Oz. With the flick of a switch in his office behind Trum Field, 16 blue lights (mounted on street lights at main intersections) flicker on across Somerville’s squares, signifying a snow emergency.

He is intimately familiar with the city’s layout, from intersection to hill grade. He has 16 snow removal routes plotted out for when the storms hit. One call from him to “drop your blades,” and the plows get busy clearing the streets of Somerville.

Mayor Joe Curtatone is the person who officially calls a snow emergency — usually when four inches or more are predicted — but he does so in consultation with Koty, Communications Director Tom Champion and information from weather reports and other cities and towns.

When a snow emergency commences, residents have four hours to get their cars off the even-numbered side of the street before ticketing and towing begin. The city has many different ways of notifying residents. There are the 16 little blue lights; an update on the city web site; another update on cable television; email notifications; police cruisers driving through neighborhoods and announcing it on their P.A. systems; press releases to local media; and citywide robo-calls.

Each weather pattern demands a different snow fighting technique. Larger storms are battled by the plows; storms dropping fewer inches receive salt treatments on the roads. All told, 42 pieces of “snow-fighting equipment,” as Koty calls them – three bobcats, two bombardiers and dozens of pickups, ten-wheelers and six-wheelers with sanders and plows attached – are dispatched to the streets before the first snowflake falls. They travel along those 16 different routes, treating the roads with Egyptian salt shipped in from overseas. Koty says he’s not sure why the salt needs to come from so far away, but he does know that prices are down by $10 a ton this year. Considering Somerville went through 10,000 tons of it last year combating 64 inches of snow, that could mean significant savings (even for an average year of snowfall, in which Somerville gets about 42 inches).

Plotting strategies for neutralizing storms with his right-hand man, DPW Director of Operations Ricky Willette, Koty speaks of snowfall like a military commander preparing for battle. “We try not to drop a blade until there’s two inches on the ground,” he says. “Until then we fight it with salt.”

When more than six inches fall, they begin tandem plowing, where one snowplow follows closely behind another one — the only way to move so much snow as close to the curb as possible. Of course, that’s when things start getting messy for Somervillians with driveways, who often find themselves plowed in. Koty is apologetic but firm: If the snow isn’t pushed to the curb, the streets will become progressively narrower.

The policy, while frustrating for residents, is a necessity for getting the most densely populated municipality in New England out from under the snow — and it works.
“We have a better reputation than any of our neighbors for snow removal,” says Champion. “You can tell when you hit the city limits.” Champion’s distinct voice on the snow emergency robo-calls has gained him a measure of local notoriety: a Facebook fan page and a web site that hosts a remixed version of one of his calls.

As Champion asserts, Somerville’s snow removal muscles are particularly strong when compared to neighboring cities. Somerville’s budget for snow removal is $500,000, compared to $322,000 in Cambridge and $400,000 in Arlington. Last year, Somerville spent more than $700,000 on salt alone due to repeated and particularly brutal bouts of snow – 64 inches worth. (Snow removal is the only area of a city’s budget that is permitted to go into deficit.) In terms of equipment, Somerville clears its 4.1 square miles of land with those 42 pieces of snow-fighting machinery; Cambridge has 60 pieces for use on 6.26 square miles; Arlington works with 36 trucks on 5.2 square miles of much less densely populated land. (Contractors are also used on an as-needed basis.)

Once the streets have been taken care of, two crews of about four people each shovel out the city’s 33 buildings, with help at the public schools from the janitors. As the snow piles up and starts to cause problems for pedestrians in the squares, the city starts removing it by piling it into trucks and shipping it over to vacant land in Winter Hill, where it will melt naturally without blocking the way of Somerville’s many commuters.

Back-to-back storms can keep Koty and Willette – both native Somervillians – literally snowed under for days. Still, they often take the time to help out individuals when the snow creates an extreme dilemma – like a medical one: plowing out a driveway so someone can get to a dialysis appointment, that sort of thing. However, both have grown skeptical of the “I’m due to go into labor” excuse. “I tell them, ‘You’re about the hundredth one,’” says Willette with a chuckle.

When it’s all over, though, Koty, Champion and Willette have the same woes as the rest of us. Like many residents, they bring their work home. That’s because after the long, chilly hours of working a storm, there’s still one thing left to do. They return home to driveways plowed in by snow. And they have to shovel.

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