In the wake of the recent Thanksgiving weekend storm system that dumped 21.7 inches of snow on Duluth between Wednesday, Nov. 27, and Sunday, Dec. 1, paralyzing parts of the city for days, the News Tribune made a Data Practices Act request.
What follows is a chronological timeline of events with a smattering of the 429 emails we received in response to that request, seeking further insight into snow-removal efforts that were widely criticized for moving too slowly.
Noon Saturday: Duluth issued a “no travel” advisory.
1:33 p.m. Sunday: Duluth sustained its “no travel” advisory, stating that crews were focused on opening main roads for the moment and would begin clearing residential streets in the morning.
By Monday morning, the complaints of uncleared roads were mounting.
1:55 p.m. Monday: Communications and Policy Officer Phil Jentz asked for help as complaints flooded into the city, prompting an email in which he observed that “The snow hotline voicemail is full.”
The city’s information technology department sprang into action and by 2:04 p.m. notified staff that the city’s voicemail capacity had successfully been doubled to 5,100 messages.
2:09 p.m. Monday: Jim Benning, Duluth’s director of public works and utilities, received an email from Gas Control Supervisor Carrie Lustig saying: “It has basically taken three gals all day to try to clear this line. It’s ridiculous the amount of calls. 82 voicemails to start the day off. 90% is why isn’t my street plowed yet.”
4:52 p.m. Monday: Kent Lund, a resident of North 83rd Avenue West, emailed Benning to ask when his street would be plowed. He explained that a nurse comes to his home every two weeks to give him an infusion but had been unable to reach him because of the snow.
At 2:15 p.m. the following afternoon, Benning responded to inform Lund that plows were in his neighborhood and on the way.
9:30 p.m. Monday: Stephanie Dunaiski, a resident of Brook Street near Proctor, emailed the city to complain that she had yet to see a plow in her neighborhood and to say: “We feel like we’ve been abandoned.”
8:33 a.m. Tuesday: Street Maintenance Manager Chad Bednar responded to a question about the status of the snow removal effort from Amanda Anderson, who was taking complaint calls. He indicated that some “guest” plow shifts using qualified staff from other departments were proving tough to fill.
“We are running full forces from 0200 until 1830 today and coming back to do the same tomorrow (we have been doing that for days now). We attempt to fill as many plow trucks from 1800 to 0200 in the evenings as we can with guest plowers (we seldom are able to convince enough outside help to come in between you and I),” Bednar wrote.
10:27 a.m. Tuesday: Darlene Fedler, who lives on West Second Street, wrote to say she had been waiting four days for a delivery of medications, but her street was impassable. She said she wondered if it was time to sell her house and move out of the neighborhood.
Fifteen minutes later, Mayor Emily Larson emailed back to Fedler to assure her that help would be on the way and to inform her that her own street had not yet been plowed either.
12:53 p.m. Tuesday: Wilma Rahn, a resident of Marshall Street, informed the city that she was unable to get out of her driveway, which was blocked by a 6-foot-tall snowbank. She had to cancel a pre-operation appointment and requested help from a neighbor to pick up a prescription.
“I will never get out,” Rahn lamented in her email.
10 a.m. Tuesday: The city reported that 60% of residential streets had been cleared and that it had been able to fix or replace broken-down graders returning 21 out of 22 units in its fleet to action.
The statement went on to say: “City staff anticipate that all residential streets will be plowed by 6:00 p.m. tonight, Dec. 3. Alleys that haven’t already been cleared will be cleared starting on Wednesday, Dec. 4.”
5:22 a.m. Wednesday: Robert Montgomery of Avondale Street emailed to say that his street still hadn’t been cleared. He noted: “It’s getting ugly on FB” and included a meme with a photo of Mayor Larson smiling and framed by the words: “Don’t worry. We’re opening a new brewery!”
6:17 a.m. Wednesday: Larson sent a terse email to Benning and Noah Schuchman, Duluth’s chief administrative officer. Referring to Montgomery's block on Avondale Street, she said: “Get to this block. I have asked repeatedly.”
Classes were canceled for the third straight day at Myers-Wilkins and Lowell elementary schools because of unplowed streets.
9 a.m. Wednesday: Mayor Larson called a press conference to acknowledge the city’s failure to clear snow in a timely fashion and to offer a personal apology.
12:24 p.m Wednesday: Schuchman sent an email to all department heads, requiring them to provide staff members to assist in fielding a deluge of calls and emails.
“Subject: Snow complaint line triage needed
All — I am looking for short-term emergency assistance with taking calls off the snow complaint line. The complaints have overwhelmed the database and we need to address it.”
Schuchman underscored the mandatory nature of his request when he sternly closed his note, saying: “If you don’t respond, I will be calling you directly.”
At Schuchman’s request, a dozen staff members from all city divisions were assembled to field calls and respond to emails and texts.
3:30 p.m. Wednesday: Bednar updated his supervisor, Benning, on the progress of snow-clearing efforts.
Bednar said he was proud of his dedicated crew members each working 70-80 hours throughout the past five days. He listed several complicating factors, including countless vehicles that remained disabled in deep snow, “equipment rendered inadequate by the depths of the snow drifts or ice conditions,” multiple breakdowns and illegally parked cars.
“That being said, I apologize for not meeting our goals and the schools having to close again,” Bednar wrote.
In the same email, Bednar said he made the mistake of providing a timeline for the clearing of city streets when he could not know for certain how long that would take.
“I have now learned a very valuable lesson, that it is impossible to tell. Too many factors of labor, equipment and residents to ever give a true answer, especially after beating our very limited staff and aging equipment for 96 hours straight before today started,” he wrote.
But Bednar didn’t shrug off responsibility, concluding his note by saying: “I apologize for failing the city of Duluth.”
Even as the city pushed through to the finish, it received word of people who had been left behind.
7:20 a.m. Thursday: Rachel Malzahn, going on four straight days of missed work, sent an email desperately pleading for the city to plow out her alley.
“I am appalled by the snow removal process,” she wrote. “I have been patient up until this point, but I believe this is inhuman treatment of the citizens of Duluth by leaving them stranded.”