|Elgin Water Department operator Kevin Kujak sits inside|
the city plow truck he drives during bad weather.
(Ted Schnell • BocaJump)
By Ted Schnell • BocaJump
As Elgin residents slept Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, a fleet of trucks driven by guys like Kevin Kujak rumbled up and down the city's streets in an intense, sometimes frustrating effort to unclog a road system mired in the wake of a blizzard that dropped about 18 inches of snow and whipped up drifts as much as 3 feet deep.
Their worst enemy was not necessarily the snow, although that is significant. But for some reason, even at this late hour and in the middle of a blizzard, there are drivers out, trying to slog their ways down the snow-packed streets.
Plus, even though the city had asked residents to avoid doing so, there are a fair number of vehicles parked on the streets, sometimes on both sides of narrow streets, making Kevin's task all that more difficult. In one instance, the gap between cars is so narrow that trying to drive between them is like threading a needle. Midway, Kevin lifts up and centers his plow blade before advancing ever so slowly – only to stop and back up, abandoning the stretch of roadway.
The glow of a half-dozen orange gauges on the dashboard is the only illumination inside the cab of the four-wheel dump truck that Kevin, a water department operator, shares with the one other plow driver assigned to District 12. The two are a tag team of sorts – during snow events, they work 12 hours on and 12 off, allowing one the time to rest up and visit with family and friends while the other works. District 12 is one of Elgin's larger salt routes and is a mostly residential area laced with many side streets.
The district, he added, is roughly bounded by Highland Avenue to the north, Adams Street to the south, and from Commonwealth on the west to Route 31 on the east. Kevin said Elgin has 20 residential districts like District 12, In addition, he continued, there are a couple of “main routes” on both the east and west sides of Elgin. Main routes cover larger, arterial through streets.
His truck is equipped with one steel plow blade on its undercarriage – a scraping blade usually used for lighter snowfalls. But this night the plow also is equipped with a steel-edged push plow – the only kind effective in snow this deep, Kevin said. The trucks diesel engine growls fiercely each time we encounter a stretch of particularly deep snow. Typically, he said, one tank of fuel will get him through a 12-hour shift. But tonight the snow is deep. Later in the morning, as the fuel gauge dropped to less than half a tank, he would note, “You suck up a lot more fuel when you're pushing this much snow.”
Kevin says a water department operator driving a plow is not unique – the city taps into many of its departments during the season to operate plows and salt trucks when conditions warrant it. And Tuesday's blizzard, which was not expected to abate until midafternoon Wednesday, did, of course, warrant it. In fact, City Manager Sean Stegall, who drove with the city's snow command Tuesday evening, said the city had dispatched 38 trucks to move snow off Elgin's roadways.
Stegall said that is 16 more trucks than is used for the average snow event. Forecasters had predicted possible snowfalls ranging from 12 to more than 24 inches, and the city, which declared a state of disaster in light of the forecast, was taking no chances.
Kevin said he doesn't mind. Hunched over the steering wheel with his eyes straining to see through the billows of snow thrown over the hood by the plow blade, he said the overtime is good, and time behind the wheel usually flies swiftly. So at the moment, he's trying to catch the rhythm of the shift.
Every storm is different, he said, and routes within each district can shift to accommodate those conditions. Tonight, he added, his instruction are fairly straightforward: Try to make the streets passable in District 12. That's not how the city usually operates, he said, but it's is no surprise tonight given the volume of snow.
“We're just trying to get one pass through tonight,” he said. “Usually, during a normal snow, we try to make two passes on a street.” But, “there's only so much we can do,” he said.
It's 11 o'clock, about an hour into his shift, and his night is already complicated by the heavy rate of snowfall coupled with winds that combine to make near white-out conditions. Turning off the extra set of headlights perched atop the plow blade helps reduce the glare. In the meantime, messages come in via his Nextel. Some, like one from Elgin's far-West Side, are discouraging – a plow driver is pulling over and waiting for the snow to die down some so he can see the roadway again. Kujak plugged on at 15 mph.
“I can still see,” he said, eyes straining. Another complication arises: drivers. It seems like the first dozen turns Kevin makes in this leg of his route, there are headlights waiting to greet him from just down the street, or emergency flashers from vehicles mired in the deep snow. Kevin said he can't figure it out – the city and other agencies had advised residents against any unnecessary travel once the blizzard hit. Now, more than seven hours into the snow assault, here they were, clogging streets.
“What are these people doing trying to drive?” he asked. This storm, he said, is the worst he's ever seen. Glancing down at a vehicle sitting with flashers blinking in the middle of an intersection, he adds, “I hope we don't get stuck.”
Hills are a significant obstacle in District 12, particularly when the weather goes sour. “I'm not sure I can get up some of these hills tonight,” he said. That is one more factor to consider as he mentally adjusts his route again to ensure he will arrive at those hills heading downward, not up. As the morning advances, the Nextel chimes in, calling Kevin to Route 31 and Locust Street, where Locust is impassable.
“Everything's impassable,” he grinned.
So he heads east to tackle that task. A car half-buried by snow in the entrance to a parking lot there illustrates the earlier Nextel call. The snow is so deep here it requires several passes to ensure the street indeed will be passable.
As 1 a.m. nears, the snow diminishes and the wind appears to ease. The white-out has faded, and trucks that had pulled over because of the poor visibility are instructed to get moving again.
From time to time, there is a somewhat jarring bump accompanied by bang. Kevin explained that sometimes plow blades connect on the edge of a manhole cover.
As he heads back west, it become apparent that visibility is improving. In addition, we now get glimpses of areas that the plow had cleared earlier – that's a great sign, Kevin said, because it now means the plowing effort is keeping up with the blizzard.