Take and hold ground is the first law of military science. No battle can be won if that admonition is ignored.
It could also have served as the prime directive of Alexandria's maintenance forces as they battled the relentless first blizzard of the 21st century. Armed with weapons unknown at the time of the great Knickerbocker storm of the 1920s, city crews started grueling 12-hour shifts beginning Saturday night.
Their work was the result of a near record-setting snowfall, some 16-plus inches officially recorded at Reagan National Airport. Snow began falling Friday and continued through Monday morning.
From opening main travel arteries to clearing paths for medical units, to eventually freeing neighborhoods from acute cabin fever, the crews who pilot the more than 40 city plow and salting vehicles follow a very disciplined battle plan. And it pays off.
"We have divided the city into four districts, which enables us to get to a given location faster. Particularly when we get a call for help from Emergency Services," said Douglas McCobb, deputy director of Operations, Transportation and Environmental Services Administration, as he maneuvered up Duke Street Monday morning.
"We can clean a path for ambulances. But the sleet has just exacerbated the situation," he said. "When the roads begin to refreeze at night, the salt will not stop that. The excess water tends to dilute it."
Just as he was explaining some of their efforts, the radio crackled for a plow to come to a certain area to assist an EMS ambulance on call. It had become stuck.
McCobb pointed out that there were two good factors to this storm. It occurred over a long weekend, which cut down on traffic and enabled people to stay home. And, it started when it was very cold with the temperature steadily increasing. "This enables the salt and combined solution to work much better and faster," he said.
THAT FACT WAS evident from the blacktop already showing through on Duke Street by 11 a.m. on Monday as the truck passed Table Talk Restaurant, which was open and serving some hearty snow stalkers. They had obviously walked there, since the parking lot contained only two vehicles.
McCobb expected that the 12-hour shifts to continue right through Tuesday as they began to concentrate their attention on neighborhood streets not considered either main arteries or connectors. That began late Monday afternoon.
"During the night hours, we have trucks roaming the neighborhoods searching for serious water areas where the drop in temperature can cause excessive ice," he noted. "All the intersections are constricted by snow piles because we have nowhere to go with it immediately."
Just then a city truck loaded with snow blowers and a crew of six pulled up alongside. "Those fellows are going to use those snow blowers to free up handicapped ramps and sidewalks at various facilities that serve the elderly and disabled," McCobb explained. "It's another city service."
As a native of Maine and former district and traffic engineer for that state's Department of Transportation, McCobb is no stranger to snowy weather. "But if people just stay off the roads, it makes our job a lot easier," he emphasized.
The other thing that has made the job easier is the salt mixtures now in use by road crews. "We use three types of mix to cut through to the road surface," McCobb explained. "There is a brine mix of salt and water, which is put down to hinder the snow from adhering to pavement. Then there's the hard salt. And, finally, we use what we call a “hot mix.” This is a combination of the hard salt and liquid calcium chloride."
It is this latter that melts the snow and ice on the roadway. It is disbursed from a small hose on the spreader. The hot mix enables the salt to work much faster. This was evident by noon on Monday, when the hill on Quaker Lane, leading to I-395, was already completely clear of any snow cover.
THE SPREADING OF the hot mix is a primary reason for the warning on the back of the plow/spreaders: "Stay back 100 feet." If it can do that to snow and ice, it can also have a negative impact on vehicle finishes.
For a firsthand experience on clearing residential neighborhoods, we switched over to the combination plow/spreader being driven by Larry Thompson. As a sewer inspector and 14-year veteran with Alexandria city government, Thompson's regular assignment is to oversee the televised inspections of Alexandria's vast sewer system.
Today he was among the legion of maintenance crews working to release the city from the grip of the blizzard. It was the beginning of his third 12-hour shift.
"I live in Maryland, just below Fort Washington," he explained. "But the city is housing those of us who live a distance, at the Days Inn. That way we are available to rotate shifts. We are paid for each of our 12-hour work periods."
As he headed into the area just off Quaker Lane, a voice came over the radio telling another driver to "burn it." Thompson explained that meant to start laying salt wherever that truck was at that time. "It means we want to see asphalt," he exclaimed.
As he approached the intersection of Quaker Lane and Braddock Road, there were two large city trucks in that intersection, plow to plow. It resembled the mechanical equal of two great-horned rams in the midst of a nature ritual.
"Snow will build up under the trucks sometimes, and that forms an ice pack around the axle, which prevents it from gaining traction," according to Thompson. "When that happens, the wheels just spin. The other truck is trying to force it backward to break the ice pack."
JUST THEN THE spinning behemoth broke free and went on about its mission heading toward I-395 on Braddock Road. "As long as the truck is moving, the ice pack won't grab hold. But if the truck stops and the ice pack is there, it can stop the traction of the driving wheels," Thompson pointed out.
Although there are red snow-emergency route signs on the major arteries of the city with the threat of "towing enforced" plainly visible, there were a number of vehicles ignoring the warning. This was particularly true as Thompson made his way down Mount Vernon Avenue.
"Some of the citizens don't make it any easier for us. They get out to drive around just to see what's going on. And parking on the snow emergency route really hinders the plows," he complained. None of the vehicles parked on the restricted lanes were ticketed or marked for towing.
We also came upon a car that was stopped right in the middle of the roadway in a residential area. It lights were flashing, and the operator was standing next to the driver's door looking rather perplexed. But the problem was not the storm or snow pack.
This was an Alexandria Police car. The officer had gotten out and locked the keys in the car. She did not have an extra set or an unlocking device. "Sorry," Thompson said, "and good luck," as he continued his attack on the now crusted white stuff. In the rear view mirror, she was seen using her walkie-talkie.
As Thompson snaked his way along a myriad of residential streets, widening the vehicular lanes, residents shoveling out their buried cars greeted his presence with mixed emotion. Some gave a friendly wave, others a cold stare as if to say, "Don't you dare plow me back in."
Thompson just chuckled and raised the plow until he got past. "I wouldn't undo all their hard work," he promised. "We get some complaints as to why a street hasn't been plowed yet. But, for the most part, the citizens are very helpful and supportive," Thompson assured.
"First we plow the snow as low as possible. Then we come back and salt. But it has to stop snowing before we can do any salting," Thompson said.
"Even when we get the streets cleaned, we have to find some place to dump the snow. It used to be under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but that's out now with the construction," he acknowledged.
EACH TRUCK WILL burn about a tank of fuel in one 12-hour shift, according to Thompson. The salt spreader on the rear has its own motor, which usually needs to be refueled at least once during a shift. "We carry five gallons of fuel with us, so we can fill up the spreader without returning to the maintenance area," he said.
In addition to the large steel blades, each truck, large or medium, can be fitted with a hard rubber blade as well. "We acquired the rubber blades years ago to deal with light snows. They are interchangeable. But, the rubber blades won't cut through deep snow as well as the steel. Their advantage is they are easier on the road surface," Thompson explained.
As for the time it takes to clear all of Alexandria's 517 miles of driving lanes, that depends on the volume of snow and the temperature after the snow stops falling. "In 1996 we were doing 12-hour shifts for two weeks because the temperature stayed very low. There was little or no natural melting," he remembered.
"This time, if the weather works with us, we should be able to have it all cleared in four or five days. But we still have to put it somewhere," Thompson said. The trucks average no more than 20 miles per hour. "It you drive them any faster, the blade will be bend if it hits something like a manhole cover."
Although the city has already expended its entire snow removal budget, according to McCobb, "having enough salt, hot mix, and other materials is not a problem. We can get all we need anytime," he insisted.
"Our salt comes from Morton Salt Co. in Baltimore," McCobb clarified. "Actually, it's the same as regular table salt. It's just unrefined."
As the truck headed back into Old Town along King Street Monday afternoon, the scene looked like something from a Norman Rockwell painting. There were far more pedestrians in the street, walking and on skis, than vehicles. However, some of the skiers had to take to the sidewalks. Alexandria's snowplow crews were definitely winning this war. They were taking and holding their hard-fought-for ground.
Just as Thompson approached the intersection of King and Washington streets, another order came across his radio from Snow Command: "Burn it."