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Plow drivers hit the road

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Detroit Lakes,Minnesota 56501
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Plow drivers hit the road
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

With the first significant snowfall of 2007 descending on the Detroit Lakes area this past weekend, many area snowplow drivers put in as many as 10-12 hours on the road per day on both Saturday and Sunday.


Minnesota Department of Transportation Maintenance Supervisor Dennis Redig reported that some of the eight plow drivers working out of the Detroit Lakes office began their routes between 2-3 a.m. on Saturday.

With 17 truck stations and 59 trucks operating in the district's 12 counties, Redig said, "We were out until about 10 p.m."

By 4 a.m. Sunday, they were back at it, as a second wave of snow had hit.

" We like to give our drivers a minimum of 7-8 hours between shifts," Redig said.

Becker County Highway Engineer Brad Wentz said most of the 10 plow drivers in his department hit the road by 7 a.m. on Saturday, except for the western part of the county, where the snowfall had not yet reached its peak. In that area of the county, some plows weren't out until around 9 a.m., he said.

By 4 a.m. Sunday, they were back on the road.

Saturday was tough sledding for mail carriers in Detroit Lakes and throughout Becker County, but by Monday the roadways in Detroit Lakes were looking very good, said Lori DeJong, a supervisor in the Detroit Lakes office.

"Even the city side streets were not plowed Saturday, it was pretty difficult," she said. "In the countryside, there were a lot of streets unplowed."

Even so, postal carriers had a 99 percent delivery rate, she said.

For safety reasons, mail carriers are not expected to deliver mail to homes with sidewalks, steps, or rural mailboxes that aren't cleared of snow. That mail can be returned to the post office and brought the next delivery day -- though a lot of carriers find it easier to tromp through snow and avoid having to re-deliver the mail, DeJong said.

For some area newspaper carriers, the heavy snow volume had not been sufficiently cleared in time for them to complete their routes without obstructions.

Viola Anderson, circulation manager for Detroit Lakes Newspapers, said that she had received complaints "all across the board" from her carriers, who distributed both the The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Detroit Lakes Tribune, that some of the roads on their routes were either impassable, or slowed by one-lane traffic.

In fact, Anderson herself said that while she normally completes her Sunday route by 9 a.m., this weekend, "I delivered my last Forum at 9 p.m."

When asked about this, Redig seemed almost mystified, noting that his office had received but one complaint on Saturday, "from a gentleman who complained about Highway 59 south (not being plowed) when he went home from work around midnight."

Redig said that complaint came in "a couple hours after the main crew had gone home to get some rest."

Based on the single complaint, Redig said, "I thought we had done a pretty good job (of getting the roads cleared."

When asked whether overtime pay came into it when determining the schedule of snowplow drivers working on the weekend, Redig denied that it was an issue.

"This weekend, everything was overtime," he said, but added, "We don't ever want them to drive more than 16 hours a day... it's really tough driving, and they get really tired out."

Plow driver Dan Leister of Hawley, who serves as the union representative for MnDOT drivers in the area, agreed that there was "no issue (with overtime) that I'm aware of."

"We were out in force pretty much all weekend," he said, adding that he himself had put in 24 hours, or about 12 hours per day, on Saturday and Sunday.

"All three of our trucks were going steady, and all of the DL trucks were too," he added.

Each county snowplow driver typically covers between 35-70 "lane miles" on their route, Redig noted, depending on where they were located. For instance, one of the drivers covers a route from DL to Osage on Highway 34, while another goes to Menahga on Highway 87. On Highway 59, one driver goes up to Mahnomen, while another covers the route to Pelican Rapids.

The mileage of routes assigned to MnDOT drivers in the area is roughly the same as the length of routes assigned to Becker County plow drivers, according to Wentz.

"We have 10 routes for our drivers, and they are about 60-70 miles each," he said.

Unfortunately, his office had to deal with a few more complaints than Redig's, as the county snowplow clearing the road on East Shore Drive and South Shore Drive on the west edge of DL damaged multiple mailboxes and newspaper tubes.

One complaint filed with the Detroit Lakes Police Department on Sunday morning indicated that 75 different mailboxes had been "taken out" by the snowplow on South Shore Drive.

Wentz noted that the damage had been investigated by the highway department's maintenance supervisor, John Okeson, who determined that the majority of the damage had been caused by the weight of the heavy snow.

According to county policy, Wentz said, the department will replace or repair any mailbox that is struck by the snowplow itself, but if the mailbox is damaged by the weight of the snow, it is the responsibility of the property owner to repair or replace the mailbox.

""The heavy snow coming off the plow damaged quite a few mailboxes along South Shore and East Shore Drive," Wentz said. "The plow truck wasn't hitting the mailboxes -- it (the damage) was from the impact of the snow."

This explanation did not satisfy at least one of the residents of that area, Sally Hausken, whose newspaper tube had been knocked to the ground that morning.

"They do not assume any accountability (for the damage)," she said. "I asked, 'Aren't you accountable for your (driver) knocking down the tube for the newspaper?'"

Hausken said, "the answer was a flat out 'no.'"

"My thinking is, we all have to get along, and there is such a thing as good will," she continued. "I think the county needs to rise to the occasion here and be accountable and try to get along ... they definitely did not take that position."

More snow appears to be on the way.

The National Weather Service office in Grand Forks says another strong winter storm has started to develop on the high plains that promises to bring more snow than the one that just passed through the area.

Another 8 to 18 inches of the white fluffy stuff is possible: The entire Red River region is under a winter storm watch that lasts two days -- from Wednesday afternoon through Friday afternoon.

According to the weather service statement: "This system may also produce more wind ... making blowing and drifting of snow a bigger problem by Thursday."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 15 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as obituaries. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454