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Long night for road cleanup crews

Don Grim makes adjustments to his plow on

Don Grim makes adjustments to his plow on Route 48 in Southold. (Dec. 26, 2010) Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

Even before the worst of a winter storm was due to hit Long Island Sunday, highway departments borrowed trucks and equipment from other departments, threw salt on roads and readied plows. Supervisors called employees in from vacation and told some to get ready to work through the night.

They told the public what they always do: "Stay home, stay out of our way," in the words of George Woodson, Highway Department supervisor of Riverhead. And, from Philip Berdolt, commissioner of public works in Babylon: "Try and park off the street. We can't get big trucks down [to plow] when there are cars parked on either side."

Long after the blizzard hit Sunday, while many sought cover from the blowing snow and howling winds, plow drivers carried on.

"The problem is, the snow keeps coming," said Mike Donnelly, a Babylon equipment operator pressed into duty directing plow drivers to trouble spots.

"You're trying to keep up, but you have to do it at a pace that's not going to make you crazy," said Donnelly Sunday night. 'Slow and easy wins the race,' is what I tell my guys."

At the Ocanee East Diner in Islip, employee Gus Tsiorvas said the restaurant would stay open until 2 a.m. Monday. He said a good portion of his latenight clientele was hungry plowers. At about 11 p.m. Sunday, Tsiorvas said close to 50 drivers had stopped in throughout the night for a quick dinner.

Early Sunday afternoon, most departments focused efforts on throwing down salt to minimize the amount of ice that would form on roads; later, as snow began to accumulate, they plowed - and, more than likely, will plow again, and again. "We have 537 miles of road but we're doing three, four passes on some roads," said Berdolt.

In Hempstead, Supervisor Kate Murray said 300 employees are on snow detail for what she said could be 24 straight hours of plowing the town's 1,200 miles of roads.

Eileen Peters, a spokeswoman at the state Department of Transportation, said the state has 5,300 lane-miles of Long Island highway. On major roads, teams of up to five trucks were plowing in staggered or "echelon" formation, shunting massive amounts of snow onto road shoulders.

In the past, Peters said, some drivers have tailgated or attempted to pass the snow plows. "The worst thing in the world to do is to try and pass a snow plow," she said. In an accident, she said, the driver in the multiton truck with a steel plow in front isn't going to get hurt; you are.

Babylon doesn't have the manpower of some of the larger towns and state departments, so it made an "all-in" call for all employees, as well as hiring 26 contractors to clear roads. Some of those employees - Berdolt and his deputy included - were planning to sleep on air mattresses on the office floor overnight - if they got to sleep at all.

Besides the contractors' vehicles, the town has mustered 120 of its own for snow-clearing duties. "That includes pickups and Jeeps," said Berdolt. "Anything we can put a plow on, we do."

That includes his own car.

Woodson, in Riverhead, was on the road when a reporter reached him at around 4 p.m. He said most of his men were on the road as well, plowing in what he described as near white-out conditions. His strategy was to keep main roads open and work smaller roads as police and fire rescue require. But the wind and the town's flat farmland are working against his men: "You can plow a road like Sound Avenue, go one end to the other," he said, "and by the time you're done, it's like you didn't even do it."

Islip may well be the only town headed by a man who used to move snow for a living: Philip Nolan, who used to work for Aero Snow Removal, a company that specializes in clearing airport runways. With 1,100 miles of road to work, he said, it was critical not to fall behind. By 4 p.m., 275 pieces of equipment had thrown close to 400 tons of salt, and were moving into plow phase. "At two to three inches, you can plow at 30 miles per hour," he said. "But at six to eight inches, you can't move at all."

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