In 2010, when the US government last conducted the census, the population of New York City was estimated at 8,175,133, roughly equivalent to the current populations of Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia combined. The density of this population is the highest in the nation, more than double that of Chicago. To navigate the city, these tightly crammed residents navigate over 6,500 linear miles of road, or what amounts to 19,000 lane miles. During the winter, when storms lock the city in snow, these facts all become Chief Edward Grayson’s problem. He heads operations for the Bureau of Cleaning and Collection at the Department of Sanitation, which in the event of a snowstorm suspends normal trash and recycling collection in order to clean snow and ice from NYC streets.
The 2015/2016 winter season officially kicks off on December 21st, and the current historic El Niño makes for an unpredictable climate. Predictions from the NOAA indicate that, due to the intense strength of the El Niño, the northeast will experience wetter- and warmer-than-average conditions, a combination that makes snowfall accumulation difficult to forecast. Coupled with the Farmers’ Almanac‘s (admittedly dubious) prediction of a snowy and cold winter in the northeast, signs point toward a potentially devastating and, at the very least, unpredictable, winter.
The importance of keeping the city’s streets open is obvious. While “snow days” lead to losses in worker productivity and education, on a more basic level, Grayson is working to keep hospitals accessible, keep emergency vehicles moving, and even help harried parents. When the “kids are hungry and they’re out of bread…no one could argue with that,” said Grayson.
His job is enormously complex and vital to the health of the city’s most vulnerable residents. Combating the winter draws on the resources and knowledge from many of the city’s disparate bureaus to effectively utilize 3,000 snowplowing routes. It all amounts to a several-months-long tango with mother nature.
The First Flake
On October 29, 2011, an unseasonable snowstorm made history when it dumped close to three inches on NYC, marking the first time that an October snowfall measured over one inch in the city. In the years since, the first measurable snowfall has come in early November and twice in early December. Now, in mid-November, Chief Grayson is already prepped and ready for what he calls “the first flake.”
Namely, this preparation requires salt. The commissioner likes to start the season with each of the city’s 29 permanent and 14 seasonal salt storage sites filled to the max, which amounts to 300,500 tons of salt. Over the past month or two, Grayson’s brought in the final 50,000 tons of salt to reach those numbers. Those 300,500 tons take up over 4.5 million cubic feet. Put another way, the salt piled in NYC right now could cover all of Central Park in an inch and a half of salt, or salt 940 billion orders of large fries at McDonald’s.
Put another way, the salt piled in NYC right now could cover all of Central Park in an inch and a half of salt, or salt 940 billion orders of large fries at McDonald’s.
As Grayson goes over the rest of his prep, it sounds as if he’s reading off a checklist he knows by heart. The City Commissioner promoted Grayson, a large man who peppers quick jokes into his speech without losing a beat and who wears his red hair shaved close and his goatee trimmed neatly, this past April. His desire to handle his first winter with confidence is evident. “During the summer, it’s vehicle maintenance. They overhaul the trucks, break them down and clean them. Get them oiled and repaired. We look at our inventory of skid chains, shovels and ice picks. We put out a casting call for emergency hired laborers, which we tweet and advertise online.”
Recently, the city switched over to its “Night Plow season,” which lasts from mid-November until the first Monday in April. Sanitation workers begin working 12-hour shifts for trash and recyclable collection. The on-the-ground employees, the same ones who will be clearing out the city streets of snow in the case of a storm, spread out the shifts so that there is always a collection team on the clock. This way, a storm that comes in the middle of the night will already have a team up and on the streets. Training takes place at Floyd Bennett Field to teach employees about their equipment; a recent snow-drill exercise, conducted annually at the beginning of the Night Plow season, ensured that everyone is in “Snow Mode,” according to the Department of Sanitation.
“Two inches in any roadway, we drop plow,” said Grayson. “We don’t want to waste scraping blacktop. But once there’s something to actually push, we roll.” This year, Grayson will be rolling with a new crop of vehicles, bringing the total number of salt spreaders and plows from over 300 to over 500, the new ones pristine and bright orange. They are dedicated for salting and plowing, and have slight improvements, like a bed that can raise up to dump out salt at the end of the season faster, instead of needing to be shoveled by hand. This might seem small, but it will save workers close to an hour per truck, which amounts to weeks of saved time for a worker. The majority of Grayson’s decisions are aimed at improving these margins in the goal of always getting the city up and running faster, and at a lower cost. All of the trucks’ plows are uniformly fixed to the right, and routes are planned with this in mind to keep adjustments from costing the force time. For smaller streets, the city sends out smaller plows, which are more effective in tertiary and side roads.
The plowing begins on a three-tier routing system. The first and prioritized tier is all of the dedicated first-responder routes, which connect hospitals, NYPD and FDNY with major public thoroughfares, bus routes, densely populated areas and the two major airports. Then the focus shifts to the secondary routes — anything off of a major city street. Finally come the tertiary routes, your dead-end roads and limited-access streets.
If there are six inches or more of accumulation, Grayson switches to piling and hauling once the streets are plowed. The plowed snow has nowhere to go, so the snow plows create piles and then come back with front-end loaders and haul the snow miles away to melter sites. The city has 36 melters: 29 that melt 60 tons of snow per hour and seven “mega-melters” that melt 135 tons per hour. The melters heat huge quantities of snow and drain the snow melt directly into a sewer feed, which then enters a water-treatment facility.
Grayson needs to be ready for the worst of any weather prediction. When lives are on the line, Grayson has to take every model seriously. “If one model made a predictive analysis, we need to plan for that worst-case scenario because it’s out there,” he said.
“It’s not cookie-cutter. It takes a hell of a lot of practice,” said Grayson. “It’s a ballet of moving parts when working with all the other agencies, and we are where the steel meets the road.”
In the event of a devastating blizzard, the Office of Emergency Management will open up the Emergency Operations Center, called the EOC, or more colloquially, the “War Room,” a 130-seat room located adjacent to the 24-hour Watch Command in a squat, largely unremarkable gray building in Brooklyn Heights. Representatives from every interest in the city — energy, infrastructure, sanitation, etc. — meet in one room to act as its nervous system. Their motivation is to gain and disseminate information as quickly as possible. Where interests collide, which happens as scarce resources are spread thin, the representatives can quickly make decisions. “We send an assistant or deputy chief and we sit with representatives from transportation and infrastructure,” said Grayson of the EOC. “We love working with them. We get feedback directly from the field office — GPS and camera. We know where we see clusters of complaints or trucks getting bogged down in heavy traffic.”
“It’s amazing how many people are still on the road in bad weather,” said Grayson. “People take for granted what salt will actually do. They think just because the spreader goes by, it’s okay to drive.” Grayson wants to avoid any accidents or traffic on the road that could slow down his spreaders and plows. And when clearing your own snow, “it’s not the best idea to cover the hydrant. We go out and shovel out the hydrants,” said Grayson; this is a safety precaution. “That hydrant is your lifeline if something else happens in a snowstorm.”
But regardless of discussion in the EOC in Brooklyn, Grayson’s team of trucks are out on the roads. “For a blizzard, we shift to 12-hour shifts across the board. Bring in every single person available to get all of our trucks outfitted with plows, all the salt spreaders loaded, off days cancelled,” said Grayson. “We pre-wet all the salt as it comes out of the back with liquid calcium chloride.” This drops the effective temperature of what the salt can melt from 25 degrees Fahrenheit to below zero, acting as the only defense during ice storms. Grayson loathes ice storms, which can’t be scraped by the plows and can overtake the city.
Grayson’s biggest obstacle is timing. “You gotta remember, we are an emergency force that has to standardize,” said Grayson. What he means is that he has to commit to decisions. If he calls in extra employees to strengthen the overnight labor task force, and “the front picks up legs, or high pressure moves in,” and the storm hits earlier in the day, Grayson is already locked in place.
This season, Grayson will be committing. Sometimes he will be overcommitting, like last year when the city shut down, closing roads to emergency vehicles only, in anticipation of three feet of snow. The snowfall amounted to about nine inches. But it’s better to overcommit than leave the city vulnerable. “How do we give the taxpayers, all the people of New York, the best possible outcome?” asked Grayson.
“It’s not cookie cutter. It takes a hell of a lot of practice,” he said. “It’s a ballet of moving parts when working with all the other agencies, and we are where the steel meets the road.”
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