Winter storm proves challenging long after snowflakes fall

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Four days after a winter storm descended on the Swannanoa Valley, Black Mountain Public Services crews work to remove snow downtown.

Nearly a week after a winter storm descended upon the Swannanoa Valley, the challenges presented by the snowy aftermath proved expansive.

In Black Mountain, where public services crews were still clearing parking spaces downtown five days after flakes first came from the sky, the lingering impact of the storm that dumped over a foot-and-a-half of snow on the area continued to test the town's resources.

Forecasts warned of a potentially record-breaking event days before snow started to fall. It was then the town started to prepare, according to town manager Josh Harrold.

"Public services has had a plan for years to address approaching snowstorms," said Harrold, who took over as town manager in October. "They split into two shifts, with a night crew and a day crew so they have 24-hour coverage, and those crews do the plowing.”

In instances where heavy snow is anticipated, crews treat roads that are difficult to access in advance, Harrold said.

Tyson Furniture Co. employees shovel snow off the sidewalk on the east side of Broadway Avenue on Dec. 13.

"With this one those crews pre-treated the roads in the high country, like Timber Park Drive and those areas," he continued. "We knew it would rain before the snow came in, but we treated those roads anyway, just to be on the safe side."

Jamey Matthews, the director of the public services department, placed his crews throughout the town.

“We divide the town into six zones,” he said. “We have one person per zone working on clearing the roads 24 hours a day in an event like this.”

Matthews found quickly, however, that forecasts predicting massive amounts of snow were holding true. 

“We had snow falling at a rate of two inches an hour,” Matthews said. “There had been stories in the news for days telling people to be prepared for the ‘storm of a generation.’”

Protocol during a snow event typically calls for NCDOT to clear primary roads in Black Mountain, such as N.C. 9 and U.S. 70, but the magnitude of this storm dictated otherwise.

“They pulled all their resources to roadways necessary for regional travel,” Matthews said of the NCDOT. “There was snow falling all over the state and they don’t have the resources to keep up with everything. They focused heavily on I-40 here, especially up on Old Fort Mountain.”

Black Mountain crews, which typically focus first on secondary streets like Rhododendron Avenue and Cragmont Road before turning their attention to residential streets within town limits, were instructed to leave their plows down as they traveled on primary roads, Matthews said.

Public services crews clear snow off of parking spaces in downtown Black Mountain on Dec. 13.

The added responsibility of clearing roads normally maintained by NCDOT combined with the rapid rate at which the snow was falling presented challenges.

“There is only so much that you can do,” Matthews said. “We had a person in every zone all day through the night, but they were fighting a wet, heavy snow that was dumping at a rate that we haven’t seen here in 25 years.”

Harrold spent six hours on Dec. 9 in the truck with Matthews, who was working a zone near the center of town. The experience helped him understand the challenges a storm like this can pose, he said.

“Each snow event is different,” Harrold said. “With this event, the amount of snow falling and the rate at which it was accumulating, we would plow a residential street in the zone and by the time we made our way through that zone and back around to that street it was covered again.”

Matthews, who has worked for the town for over a decade, said this storm was like none he’d experienced before.

“You take a wet snow like that and if people get out and drive on it, it packs just like an ice rink,” he said. “If you take a soft, powdery snow and try to pack it, it won’t pack. It just falls apart and melts and that’s the kind of snow we like. Unfortunately, that’s not what we were dealing with here.”

The texture of the snow wasn’t the only issue either, according to Matthews.

“They tell people to stay at home during these storms for a reason,” he said. “It’s really for their safety and ours. What happens is people drive on this kind of snow and it packs down so much that our plows won’t cut it.”

Those issues weren’t unique to Black Mountain either, Matthews points out.

“The DOT dump truck couldn’t push (U.S. 70),” he said. “They brought their biggest motor grader down that road, we were able to watch them, and it was a monster. But it couldn’t clear the ice off so it wasn’t just challenging for us, it was challenging for everyone.”

Black Mountain firefighters shovel snow off the sidewalk along East State Street four days after a winter storm dumped over a foot-and-a-half of snow on the Swannanoa Valley.

Motorists and pedestrians venturing out into the snow further snarled efforts to clear some roadways, Matthew said.

Plowing of a roadway near the town’s highest elevations was interrupted when a vehicle attempted to get down the mountain.

“We had a vehicle stuck up in the high country on the second day of the storm and it blocked the road,” Matthews said. “We couldn’t plow the roads past that point until that vehicle could be pulled out.”

Along Montreat Road, a thoroughfare normally maintained by the state, people walking in the middle of the road to avoid snow drifts slowed down the efforts of town personnel, he continued.

“When our trucks are traveling along those roads with the plows down, there is no special mechanism that helps them get down under the ice,” Matthews said. “Since we’re relying on the weight of the plow to cut under the ice, if our guys have to stop, then those plows will just ride along over the ice once they get going again and it's already packed down.”

As temperatures climbed in the days after the storm, melting and refreezing forced public services staff to work on residential roads through the afternoon of Dec. 11, before turning their attention to snow covered parking spaces along Cherry and State Streets, as well as Sutton and Broadway Avenues.

Efforts to remove snow downtown continued in earnest through Dec. 12.

“We were inundated with phone calls throughout this event,” Harrold said. “People were obviously concerned with having parking spaces cleared downtown, but our first concern was keeping roads clear for emergency vehicles in the event they needed to get through.”

The Thursday morning after the snowstorm, public services crews worked to remove snow covering parking spaces along Cherry Street and Broadway Avenue. Other town official, including Harrold, firefighters and mayor Don Collins, were focusing their efforts on clearing sidewalks through town.

In an effort to prepare for the annual Christmas Parade, which was postponed ahead the storm, Black Mountain Fire Department deputy chief John Wilson and his crew cleared sidewalks on the north side of U.S. 70 from N.C. 9 to Richardson Boulevard. 

After postponing the Dec. 8 parade to Dec. 15, Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce executive director Bob McMurray decided to cancel the event. 

"There was still a lot of snow on the ground and a lot of rain in the forecast," McMurray said of the decision. "After consulting with the town's emergency management personnel we decided that we would go ahead and cancel it this year for the safety of everyone involved."

The registration fees collected for the parade were donated the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry. 

"This is the first time since I've been with the chamber that we've had to outright cancel the Christmas Parade," McMurray said. 

The severity of the storm, according to Harrold, forced the town to "play catch-up" throughout.

"This was a lot of snow," he said. "It was the most we've gotten here in a long time, and it really tested our resources."

All things considered, Matthews said, public services crews did a "great job."

"I'm proud of the effort these guys put in," he said. "Considering all of the challenges we faced with this event, they did a great job of keeping the roads clear for emergency personnel."