Tensions boiled over Tuesday as residents living in parts of the city not yet snowplowed vented their frustrations more than 48 hours after the weekend's blizzard. Some people raised their voices with the city and others took their complaints to the internet.
“I seriously hope this doesn’t leave a black eye when people think of coming to Duluth this winter,” bed and breakfast owner Jim Fischer told the News Tribune — his business' street in the Endion neighborhood still not plowed by midday Tuesday.
As Duluth dug out from 21.7 inches of snow delivered in a violent, swirling heap over the weekend, the hours of isolation for some residents gnawed on their nerves and drew them to their fiber optic devices to vent. Emails poured into the city. Tweets stormed, and Facebook message boards lit up with dueling narratives — either condemning 48-plus hours without a plow to their road, or praise for city workers while preaching patience.
If there’s a plus side to the Vikings’ loss, maybe all the armchair quarterbacks will stick to that and stop being armchair plow drivers.— Dana Kazel (@danakazel) December 3, 2019
Public figures pushed the latter in tweets, while residents still disconnected from plowed arteries tended to let off steam, or be the Monday morning quarterback with all the solutions. The earnest refrain from many was that they desperately needed to get to work.
“(Monday) at 3 p.m., they finally said, ‘We need to get out of here; we have surgery scheduled for tomorrow,’ ” said Nancy Stam, a doctor’s wife, who shares a home with her husband, Dr. Denton Stam, a cardiothoracic surgeon. They reside in one of several physicians’ homes located at the end of the line in Duluth — with their backs pointed south and southwest to the wilderness of Hartley Nature Center. The street is home to two cardiac surgeons, a neurosurgeon, an orthopedist, an interventional radiologist and a vascular surgeon. Teaming together, the neighbors plowed their street piecemeal, using their private snowblowers and other equipment.
“What hit me, especially in the holiday season, is everybody got together and got out their shovels and snowblowers and formed a positive community service — it was the medical profession serving the community of Duluth,” Nancy Stam said. “But it’s a problem that needs to be solved.”
College students at the University of Minnesota Duluth, College of St. Scholastica and Lake Superior College took to change.org in a desperate and futile attempt to cancel Tuesday’s classes. They referred to Duluth as Pompeii, an ancient Roman city buried in a cataclysm of volcanic ash, and lamented “hundreds of roads yet to be plowed." Their petition had received more than 6,600 signatures to say, in part, that it was “unjust to hold classes with dangerous and stress-inducing conditions.”
Of the many emails flowing into the city since Monday, Mayor Emily Larson responded to the innkeeper Fischer’s.
Another snowy, slippery walk to work (upside: getting my steps in!). Here’s to *all* our neighborhoods getting plowed out today! Incl my own. TY @cityofduluth staff for your long hours. Snowpile behind me is taller than I am. This is not easy work! pic.twitter.com/9QZS2NfKId— Emily Larson (@LarsonForDuluth) December 3, 2019
The mayor’s response to Fischer stood out as an impassioned plea for understanding. While city officials sent updates throughout the storm and its aftermath — including one Tuesday afternoon saying 90% of residential streets had been plowed — the mayor’s response struck more detailed chords about the challenges faced by this particular storm.
“We regularly anticipate snow and storms — what we can’t anticipate is the kind of snow and the impact of blizzards in terms of drifting and blowing,” Larson wrote. “We just have to react to those significant variables. Some of the usual machinery is not effective with the weight and density of this particular snow, so we had to utilize more graders than plows. Snowmobiles running on streets packed this kind of snow with a force that is very difficult to loosen and is requiring two kinds of machinery rather than the one we would usually need per street. People driving around when there was a no-travel advisory left cars scattered all over city streets.”
While residents compared the storm to natural disasters that draw statewide aid and attention, in her letter the mayor denied the city had the ability to seek mutual aid from other jurisdictions, saying everybody was fighting the same battle.
"Other cities and governmental entities are fully deploying their trucks, machines, plows and staff," she wrote.
Fischer accepted Larson’s reply as “a positive response.” But he also said she should have been delivering it on television and that the city ought to be more transparent with how plowing is conducted.
Elected officials are not getting special treatment. My ave is getting cleared currently. Thanks to our plow drivers for working long hours to dig out of of our blizzard. pic.twitter.com/g5mlEdIQ7X— Noah Hobbs (@Hobbs_Duluth) December 3, 2019
Fischer and his wife, Joy, moved from St. Paul 22 years ago to operate the Firelight Inn on Oregon Creek, located 2.7 miles east from City Hall downtown. As of Tuesday afternoon, the couple was still entertaining and serving breakfast to weekend guests stuck until plows arrived.
“One thing that’s frustrating is: 'Do they send out plows to different areas or sweep all the way across starting in the west end?' ” Jim Fischer said, calling for interactive plow maps such as the ones deployed online by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
For all its updating, the city had not shared a particular plowing strategy.
Sources and online sentiment seemed to suggest 24-36 hours as a reasonable time frame to see their residential street plowed.
In defending the city and its snow removal effort, politicians were quick to point out they’d been affected, too — as if to stress the notion that nobody earned special treatment.
“The sun comes up & goes down on our unplowed street,” state Rep. Liz Olson tweeted with a picture of her snow-ridden Duluth street. “Beyond grateful for our neighbors who care for kiddos, shovel, share meals, build forts & make this whole thing bearable."
Work is expected to continue the rest of the week to improve blacktops, widen intersections for sight distance safety and clear sidewalks.— St. Louis County, Minnesota (@StLouisCountyMN) December 3, 2019
This was a mammoth storm and we thank everyone for their continued patience