Duluth city officials and staff endured a barrage of harsh criticism for their slow response following the recent Thanksgiving weekend blizzard. But they aim to learn from the experience as they prepare for the next big storm, whenever it hits.
Mayor Emily Larson said she heard loud and clear how upset people were with the pace of local snow-clearing operations, and she stepped forward to acknowledge the city should have done a better job.
That’s not to say the city faced an easy task.
“In essence there were a handful of really unique circumstances that all came together in those few days that are unlikely to come together in that way again — like the chemistry of the snow itself, how heavy it was, the fact that only our graders could get through and not our snowplows,” she said.
Only graders — not plows — were up to the task of moving the deep, dense and often packed-down snow left behind after three back-to-back snowfalls. Larson noted that Duluth received the equivalent of 35% of its average annual snowfall over the span of just five days.
The storm hit during a holiday weekend, when many people were out of town and unable to move parked cars, which further complicated the cleanup.
With so many challenges, Larson said: “Something’s not going to go right. And in this case, it was the fact that the Central Hillside neighborhood was the last one we got to. That’s not in keeping with our values or our snow removal program.”
Larson said the city is re-examining its plow-routing plan.
Noah Schuchman, Duluth’s chief administrative officer, has been looking into new technology, and notably global positioning system (GPS) trackers to chart the progress of snow-removal efforts.
“We are in the process of activating GPS on the vehicles so we are better able to map that,” he said.
“Our hope is that for next winter we are able to have that real-time mapping for our use, and I would like to get to a point where we could provide the public with some sort of visuals of what parts of the city have been done,” Schuchman said.
Another improvement also is in the works.
Before next winter arrives, Duluth plans to roll out a snow emergency program, and while Larson acknowledged the ability to declare snow emergencies in the future “is not going to fix everything,” she said: “It really will make it easier when we can remove cars at certain hours on main thoroughfares. And we can just get in there once and clean it out.”
She said the new system should speed the city’s ability to get to residential roadways, too.
Yes, Duluth technically already does have a snow emergency system in place, but many of the designated routes remain unmarked, and the public remains unfamiliar with the rules. In fact, there’s so much general confusion that no one currently on staff with the city can recall Duluth ever calling a snow emergency, even during the Halloween blizzard of 1991, which dumped more than 3 feet of snow on portions of Duluth.
Schuchman said the city aims to begin installing snow emergency signs as soon as the ground thaws. It will take about 2,800 signs to mark the 120 miles of designated emergency routes. Then, the city will begin a campaign to educate the public.
As for resources, Schuchman believes Duluth is properly staffed and equipped to handle snow events.
“The issue we had with equipment was not not having enough of it. It was that immediately after the storm, only the graders were effective. So it wasn’t an issue of enough equipment. It was an issue of the appropriate kind of equipment,” he said.
Schuchman stressed that the city must strike a balance and be a wise steward of tax dollars. Duluth already has the equivalent of 44 people on staff to care for roads and claims to have the largest fleet of snow-removal equipment of any city in the state. Certain additional pieces of equipment might be helpful in the height of a big storm but likely would sit idle most of the year.
Using regular street maintenance staff, the city fully deployed its fleet during the plowing shifts from 2 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. during the Thanksgiving weekend storm.
To sustain the effort around the clock, however, the city also relies on qualified drivers from other departments to volunteer and spell regular plow drivers in the countershift from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Schuchman considers it no surprise that some of those shifts went unfilled in the wake of the Thanksgiving weekend storm.
Those “guest drivers” can’t be compelled to take countershifts, “So, we have a revolving group of very dedicated guest drivers, and they are very dedicated. But contractually, we have just different rules for them,” Schuchman said.
“After days of response, it’s just a lot. And I think it’s really important to underscore that our plow drivers are doing really tough jobs. It’s not just driving straight down a street. They need to really pay attention to all the things that are going on around them. So everyone gets tired doing that,” he said.
Schuchman said city administration remains open to the idea of cross-training additional interdepartmental staff to operate snow-moving equipment in the future.
When asked about possibly turning to the private sector for help in a big storm, Schuchman expressed concerns about being able to orchestrate the work while incorporating non-city drivers unfamiliar with established routes. He did see potential value, however in using private companies to assist with snow-removal efforts.
City staff logged 1,492 hours of overtime clearing streets between Nov. 29 and Dec. 7 at a cost of $59,720.
Larson said she was disappointed to see hard-working city staff publicly denigrated after the recent storm. She noted that the last comparable storm of such magnitude was probably the Halloween blizzard, “and the difference between that 1991 snowfall and this one is, quite frankly, social media.”
Especially in that arena, some of the public conversation took a nasty turn, and Larson said that was part of what prompted her to call a Wednesday, Dec. 4, press conference where she took personal responsibility for the slow dig-out and offered an apology to the community.
“I felt that somebody has to take this. To me, that’s a leadership piece: When things start moving in a direction where your staff is taking the hit, you step in front of it. Period. Just period. No questions asked,” she said.
Another takeaway from the storm is the danger of the city promising more than it can deliver, as when it pledged to have all residential streets cleared by 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3 — a mark it did not meet.
Larson said her administration will handle the message it delivers to the community differently in the future, as well.
“Some of it is we need to be clear about how hard our team is working, everything they’re doing. We had staff literally working 16-hour days over Thanksgiving weekend repeatedly, and there is just a maximum of what everyone is capable of,” she said.
“I think we can adjust our message but also provide the consistency and clarity that people need.”
Schuchman said: “I think the hard part is that we want to give people as much information as we can, and we want to make sure we’re also setting reasonable expectations. That’s a conversation we’ve had internally about how best to do that. And there are certainly some lessons learned from that blizzard. But we really do understand the importance of the community having an understanding of what things look like and how things are going. We take that really seriously.”
All in all, Larson said she believes the city will be better prepared for the next big snowstorm.
“I do think that anytime you have a significant challenge, you come out with greater resolve and clarity. I think we have, in this case,” she said.