Plows at the Ready, Again and Again

Highway departments plan their strategies in face of continued heavy snows
The road crews sanding, salting, and plowing in East Hampton Town and Village are bearing up under a very busy winter so far. Morgan McGivern

    Motorists trying to go about their work and errands this winter who have had to contend with icy and snowy roads might feel like the precipitation is relentless, but it is the highway crews who are out salting and sanding roads before, during, and after storms, and plowing the way for residents to get through who have really borne the brunt of the winter weather.

    Nonetheless, East Hampton Town’s Highway Superintendent Steve Lynch, and the superintendent of public works for East Hampton Village, Scott Fithian, were both upbeat during recent chats, even while preparing for yet another onslaught.

    Both mentioned the grueling schedule of the highway crews, and their chiefs. Though both department heads take a round-the-clock duty schedule in stride, they try to rotate workers’ shifts so no one gets too tired out.

    “It’s long hours; it’s tedious,” Mr. Fithian said. “We do it till it’s cleaned up.”

    “I don’t go home till it’s over,” Mr. Lynch said. During the previous snowstorm, he said last week — several inches of snow ago — “I drove a truck, too.”

    One effective strategy, both men said, is to pre-treat the roads with salt before snow begins to fall.
    During some storms, Mr. Lynch said, he begins to have trucks salt the roads as they get covered with snow. But if snow is surely coming, he will “pre-salt.”
    “On the main roads, it prevents the hardpack,” he said, allowing the plows to more easily get down to a clean road.

    Mr. Fithian also spreads salt ahead of the snow if he can. “We’ve had great success with that,” he said, though, given the seemingly constant arrival of new storms, “sometimes we get caught short.”

    When it is under 18 degrees, Mr. Lynch said, salt does not work to melt ice and snow. “But what has helped, is the sun has come out,” he said. After giving the sun time to soften what’s on the roads, he sends the plows out to clear them.

    Normally, he said, plowing begins after three inches of snow has fallen. Sometimes they get to work sooner if blowing or drifting snow is making roads hazardous.

    “It’s just continuous,” said Mr. Lynch of the winter weather this year.

    In the village, plows might head out to clear some snow before three inches accumulates, Mr. Fithian said. “We just keep at it till we feel it’s comfortable, and the public is safe.” His responsibilities include the sidewalks in the village, which are cleared with machines and then salted and sanded as needed.

    “So far, so good,” said Mr. Fithian on Tuesday about his seasonal store of salt and sand. While the coffers in some Long Island towns are running low, prompting New York State Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to announce Tuesday that the state would provide 400 tons of salt to Nassau and Suffolk County towns until supplies can be replenished, the crews in East Hampton Town and Village have no shortage.

    “We saw it coming,” Mr. Lynch said of the demand, “and we started cutting it with some sand.” Sand provides traction, he said.

    But, he said, his department still has plenty of salt for the roads on hand.

    A few more truckloads of materials were expected that very day, Mr. Lynch said last week. “I’m not worried about running out.”

    During snowstorms the town Highway Department staff is supplemented by part-time plow and truck drivers, and by outside contractors who use their own equipment to help treat and clear off the roads.

    In the village, a crew of 16 full-time workers is employed and outside contractors are hired to remove accumulated snow from the roads in the central business district and its parking lots.

    To really dispense with snowfall, Mr. Lynch said last week, “We just need some warm temperatures and some fog. Fog eats up snow more than anything.”

    Snow was predicted for that evening, he noted, but he predicted a light one. “I’m going for the dusting,” said Mr. Lynch.

    Nonetheless, in advance, he said, he had staff attaching plows to heavy trucks and loading dump trucks with sand and salt. “They’re ready to go,” said the highway chief. “Be safe.”

    Mr. Fithian said he relies on TV News12 and on National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration weather prognostications. If a significant storm is expected, he will meet with police and other emergency personnel to coordinate a response.

    “We’re just preparing right now for the next round,” said Mr. Fithian, who could spare just a few minutes on Tuesday afternoon before tending to the next snow at hand.