A Hard Day’s Night: DPW Employees Wind Down After 30-Hour Blizzard Shift

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Joe Atterbury leans on a grey utility table in the break room at Maplewood’s Department of Public Works on Sunday night, and looks worn out. He picks up a cup of hot coffee dropped off at headquarters by a Maplewood citizen as a thank-you. His hands shake: hours of driving big plow rigs and pushing hand-driven snow blowers will do that, he explains.

After 24 years working for DPW, Atterbury is accustomed to the occasional storm and very hard work — but this year’s blizzard was worse than any he or his colleagues have seen since 1996.

“We saw snowdrifts over three feet high, and at one point, there was a six-foot drift we had to move and one that was 12 feet high,” he said. Nearby, colleague and custodian Timothy Ellis, with DPW for 10.5 years, sits down in a chair wearily and shows that his hands, too, shake. “I came in on Saturday about 1:30 am,” he recalls. Ellis said he hadn’t gotten any real sleep since Friday night. “Maybe a cat nap or two during breaks, but really just a few minutes.”

The entire crew worked through Saturday night and into Sunday evening, when we visited them.

“The snow was just covering the ground when we got in, but the trick is to get all our people here and out on the road before too much accumulates,” added his boss Billy Riley, who was still moving trucks to make room to fit incoming equipment. Riley estimated he had been working about 30 hours, as had his dedicated staff of men and one woman, Michelle — a newcomer to DPW and the only woman behind the wheel of the salters, who is described by her colleagues as a “great driver.”

There were an estimated 27 people working to keep the streets of Maplewood clear over the weekend, and 20-odd trucks on the road day and night. Though tired and wet, DPW workers moved untold tons of snow, and some of them had various tricks to keep inevitable damp from penetrating their clothing — an occupational hazard. Ellis showed us trash bags tied tightly around the tops of his galoshes, which he said were a makeshift addition to combat high snowbanks.

What the workers didn’t expect, and were somewhat disheartened by, was the challenge issued by some Maplewood residents, a few of whom actually threw shovels at them as they drove by, or physically stood in the way of their plows and equipment.

“One lady stood in front of my blower while I was out there trying to clear at 12:30 a.m. last night and refused to move, even after I explained I was just doing my job,” said Atterbury. “She was upset that we were working through the night to try to clear the roads and public buildings so that residents could actually get around after the storm passed.” Though a large man who could easily move nearly any person out of the way, Atterbury dislikes conflict and was forced to call police to intervene because he was unable to work. He shook his head. “We are doing our best.”

“What people can do to help us get work done — to help them — is to stay out of the roads. Please don’t walk your dog, ski, or have small children on sleds in the middle of the street,” added colleague Anthony Stella. He also asked that residents not take the snow from their sidewalks and put it back in the street.

Looking forward to getting some sleep, DPW workers continued their shift until all the gear was put away. From outside, only the huge garage remained lit in the winter darkness: salt trucks sat full to the brim, tractors were pulled to the side, plows dismantled to dry — all at the ready, until the next storm.

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