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Mother Nature takes drivers and round-the-clock road crews for a ride

Gary Walkama changes a flat tire for his friend Cheri Davidson on Tuesday at the 7-11 parking lot on 1st Avenue South in Federal Way.
Gary Walkama changes a flat tire for his friend Cheri Davidson on Tuesday at the 7-11 parking lot on 1st Avenue South in Federal Way. 'That's what Christmas is all about,' said Walkama, who drove from Auburn to help Davidson, a Federal Way resident. 'He's definitely my Santa Claus this year,' Davidson said.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/The Mirror

Snow, ice, wind and freezing temperatures kept Washington State Department of Transportation crews working around the clock these past two weeks.

Throughout the region, drivers struggled to reach their destinations. WSDOT workers struggled to keep up with Mother Nature. Inclement weather forced the department to track storms, gauge the resources needed to make roads and highways safe for drivers and implement 24-hour services.

Preparation for storms, such as the one that began Dec. 17, starts well before motorists notice the nasty weather. WSDOT is aware of approaching conditions, said Travis Phelps, spokesman for the Northwest region.

"We follow three or four different forecasts," Phelps said. "We track these storms as they come to the Puget Sound."

Deciding how many crew members are needed to combat the weather comes next. Last week, approximately 300 employees covering King, Snohomish, Whatcom, Island and Skagit counties worked 12-hour shifts. Crews were on the roads 24 hours a day, Phelps said. Snow continued to fall for most of the week and chilly temperatures made the roads icy. WSDOT patrolled the roads looking for troublesome spots.

Sand, solid de-icer, liquid de-icer and snow plows all help clear snow and ice. In the Puget Sound region, 100 trucks have the ability to plow snow, 95 dump sand and solid de-icer (used after snow has already dropped) and 11 dispense liquid de-icer (dropped on top of snow and ice to make it melt).

"We do what we can to keep the roads open and snow- and ice-free," Phelps said.

But when the weather gets too tricky and the department's tools are no competition, road closures begin. WSDOT has discussions with the state patrol when deciding which closures are needed and when they ought to occur.

"Driver safety is our number one priority," Phelps said. "We can do a lot but we can't stop nature from coming our way."

Inside Federal Way city limits, snow equipment purchased in July 2007 was used to keep roads clear. Wishing to avoid a repeat of the 2006 storm, the city council approved the purchase of emergency snow, ice, auxiliary power and communication equipment at that time. The gear, at a total cost of $1,310,708, allowed snow and ice to be addressed both on main routes and in troublesome areas reported by residents, Emergency Management Coordinator Ray Gross said.

"Overall, operations and response to this prolonged cold with snow and ice has gone much better than in the past," Gross said in a Dec. 20 e-mail.

Getting by in stormy weather can be easier with motorists' participation and patience. Knowing one's comfort and skill levels for driving in inclement weather is important, Phelps said. Using chains or studded snow tires when needed can be helpful. Giving WSDOT work crews the space and patience they need to accomplish their jobs is also important, he said. Phelps advises remaining at least 150 feet back from a sand truck and clearing out of its way, if possible, to allow it to pass.

"Pull out of their way and give us the room we need to do our job," Phelps said.

Driving slow can also help avoid accidents, which require the attention of WSDOT road crews and draw away from those available to clear the roads for other motorists, according to the WSDOT Web site at www.wsdot.wa.gov.

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Learn more about driving in the snow and ice:

• Visit the WSDOT Web site at www.wsdot.wa.gov or watch a YouTube video on applying chains.

• Call 5-1-1 for updated road conditions.

• Check out www.wsdot.wa.gov/traffic/weather to view camera images and temperatures of roadways.

• Tune into 530 AM and 1610 AM on the radio for weather conditions and traffic updates.

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