Monday, October 31, 2016

Getting roads back open after a storm a team effort

By Brett Cihon

In early October, Maintenance Superintendent Mark Renshaw got a call he's fielded dozens of times before. Trees were down on State Route 20, east of Marblemount. The road was blocked in both directions and we need crews out there ASAP.
The power company must make sure there are no live wires before our crews
can remove a tree like this one on SR 20 near Marblemount.
In this case, the incident was pretty routine and we got the road opened up relatively quickly. But that isn't always the case. Our maintenance crews often handle land slides and hazardous or downed trees but storm-related road closures can be a rare sight for many drivers. So when a big storm does hit, people wonder why it takes so long to re-open the road.

Well, there are a few reasons.

Safety is priority No. 1
The first step when our crews arrive on scene of a downed or leaning tree is evaluating the potential for danger, both to workers and the traveling public. Are trees still actively falling in the area? Is a tree leaning and presenting a threat to the roadway? If so, we'll close the road until we can be sure everything is safe for drivers.

A major safety concern when it comes to hazardous trees is the potential for contact with utility lines. If a damaged tree has contact with lines, crews from that utility come in and make sure the line is shut off. Since the Hanukkah Eve Windstorm of 2006 knocked out power to 1.2 million people in the state, our working relationship with companies like Puget Sound Energy and Seattle City Light has grown stronger and more collaborative. Together, we have helped streamline the process of opening roads. There's a protocol in place, and if a tree is touching the wire, we call the power companies to address that situation before our crews move in.
The Mt. Baker Highway in Whatcom County was covered by more than 100 trees in Dec. 2012.
Even if there are no lines in the branches, sometimes the way a tree is leaning can prohibit work. The Department of Labor and Industries requires some work be done during hours of "no shadows." Depending on the scope of the situation and potential safety threat, we may not be able to cut the tree at night.

Restoring the roads and power
This car ignored a “Road Closed” sign on SR 410,
crashed and delayed the re-opening
of the roadway.

During a big storm, our relationship with the power companies can also determine where and when certain roadways open. For instance, say a big windstorm means trees are down on both Interstate 5 in Everett and SR 9 near Snohomish. Many would assume we'd clear the trees along the busier roadway first. But since more power lines run along SR 9, it may be a higher priority to clear those trees in order to restore power to thousands. A smooth trip on the interstate is great, but arriving home to no power would be a bummer.

It's a balance and requires coordination and teamwork to prioritize which roads are opened and in what order.

Abide by the laws
While we're busy clearing roads and our partners are restoring power, you can help with the process.

When you encounter a "Road Closed" sign, it's crucial to abide by the law even if the closure appears small. The signs are there for a reason.
Somewhere under there is SR 410 after a major
wind storm. Reopening the roadway takes
coordination between several agencies.

During a closure in 2015, a young driver went through a closed section of SR 410, thinking it was just one tree to go around. Instead, there were dozens.

Have you ever seen pickup sticks? That's what the roadway looked like, but the grown-up version.

The teen missed the first tree, but slammed into one further down the road. He was OK, but his father was none too happy and the crash further delayed the road opening.

If a road is closed, there's a reason for it and that reason is almost always about safety. Clearing roads after storms can take time and while we try to do it as quickly as possible, keeping everyone safe is always the most important factor. So abide by the signs and if you're driving near crews responding to incidents, slow down and give them space to work.

We're ready to go
We may have avoided the brunt of what was forecast to be a huge storm early this month, but indications are that this could be a wet, windy winter season. Renshaw and his crews, like all of our maintenance staff across the state, are gearing up and preparing to respond. During these months we have maintenance crews ready all day, every day, many working 12-hour shifts to help keep roads clear and the public safe. With coordination with our partner agencies and your help, we'll be able to keep traffic moving and people safe come rain, wind, snow or ice.

1 comment:

Phillip Elliott said...

This is absolutely true, I have worked both SR 20 from stem to stern as well R 410 from Enumclaw East to Chinook Pass and SR 123. The hazards are real and very dangerous. Not only Fall and Winter and Spring but all year due to the type of Terrain. Both places were a pleasure to work because of the verity of things you would get called out to do. Trees, rocks, slides, animals, traffic, snow, ice, floods, down power lines, road wash outs, plugged culverts, hot blistering sun, high winds, and what ever else might happen. It was a fun and serious job, but somebody had to do it...........

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