How Salem stays ahead of the storm

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By Peter Morgan
Intern

Salem City Street Department works to clear downtown Main Street on Tuesday, Jan. 26. Photos courtesy City of Salem.
Salem City Street Department works to clear downtown Main Street on Tuesday, Jan. 26. Photos courtesy City of Salem.
Street department workers clear the streets of Salem on Friday, Jan. 22, the first day of the storm.
Street department workers clear the streets of Salem on Friday, Jan. 22, the first day of the storm.
Mike Tyler has been at the snow removal game for a long time.

Tyler, the director of the Salem City Street Department, said his 20 years of service has tested the tried and true snow removal route plan, which involves actively responding to burgeoning snow levels as soon as they are predicted.

The street department’s attentiveness is as practiced as it is crucial – especially when Salem receives snow fall like it did just two weeks ago. Although it didn’t break any records for snow accumulation in southwestern Virginia, Winter Storm Jonas fell generously on Salem and the surrounding area, covering neighboring cities like Roanoke in 13.5 inches of snow according to the National Weather Service.

Tackling the snow that blankets the 14 square miles (or 320 lane miles) of Salem might seem like a daunting challenge. But for the Street Department, a part of effectively neutralizing the snow’s potential for complications is meeting the blizzard head on. Tyler’s team makes preemptive movements to reduce the storm’s impact on the streets of Salem, and minimize the city’s snow-related troubles after it’s already fallen.

This involves being out on the streets shortly before the snow begins to fall, and remaining vigilant for more inclement weather after the initial snowfall is taken care of. Tyler said his team subscribes to weather forecasts, and if the hourly predictions are 35-40 percent for precipitation, they hit the streets an hour before it occurs.

“When the storm begins, they head out and begin plowing all streets – not just primary roads,” said Mike Stevens, Salem City communications director. “That approach allows you to keep most, if not all roads, passable for first responders, and it also helps to manage the snowfall better when you are measuring it in feet.”

By the afternoon on Sunday, Stevens said “all main roads were down to the pavement, and 90 percent of neighborhood streets were cleared down to the pavement.”

Once the main roads and most of the backroads were clear, the street department was allowed to focus on other aspects of Salem’s infrastructure – mainly municipal buildings, schools, and some sidewalks downtown.

While surrounding schools districts such as Craig County and Roanoke County were shut down for multiple days, Salem City School only closed on Friday, operating on a two-hour delay on Monday, Jan. 25 and Tuesday, Jan. 26.

Even with the most recent deluge, Tyler claims that the snow removal process on the streets usually goes no longer than three cycles, or days. Tyler’s team is practiced in efficiency, which is why there are street department employees plowing the streets on 12-hour shifts around the clock until the pavement is revealed, and safe traveling is made possible.

In anticipation of more snowfall, the street department prepares 85 percent of their equipment, and it remains ready until the spring. Of his employees, Tyler said their diligence is crucial to the process.

“They embrace the challenge, step up and understand,” Tyler said, and are “very willing, and able employees with great dedication.”

“He and his staff take an amazing amount of pride in their work when it comes to snow removal,” Stevens added.