When snow and ice hit, union members were the first to respond

UNION POWER. LITERALLY.  It’s Jan. 17, and Portland is covered in ice. A power line goes down on North Borthwick Avenue. A tree starts to burn. It’s a job for members of IBEW Local 125, Pacific Power utility linemen Cal Halliday and Tom Lane III. | Photo by Cheryl Juetten

By MALLORY GRUBEN

Michael Faulkner’s Jan. 13 work shift was a race against the clock and the cold.

Faulkner, a bridge maintenance specialist with Multnomah County, usually repairs damaged roads or broken mechanical parts on bridges. But when winter weather rolls in — like the snow and ice storm that hit the Portland area mid-January — his duties shift to clearing bridge decks for drivers and keeping drawbridges working.

When the storm began on Jan. 13, temperatures dropped to 14 degrees, freezing the gears that lift the Broadway Bridge. A ship was set to pass under the bridge at 7 a.m., so Faulkner and co-workers hurried to warm bridge mechanisms with heat guns and torches. For parts that still wouldn’t run on their own, like the electric engine that adjusts the street car cables as the bridge moves, they cranked the gears manually.

“We got the ship through, and the snow started coming down,” he told the Labor Press by phone. “That was the start of the snow show for me.”

Faulkner, a member of AFSCME Local 88, is one of hundreds of union-represented workers who keep the city running during severe weather events. Members of IBEW Local 125 restore power that fails because of frozen power lines or downed trees. Members of Laborers Local 483 spread sand and salt on major city streets to keep drivers from slipping. Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 operate buses so people can still get to work when their vehicles can’t handle the roads.

Graveyard shift on ice

Laborers Local 483 member Deion Deo

As a utility worker for the City of Portland, Laborers Local 483 member Deion Deo spends most workdays inspecting stormwater drains and responding to backups in sewer lines. But in severe winter weather events, Deo becomes a member of the city’s snow plow crew.

“In snow and ice, we drop everything except for emergency sewage,” Deo said. “People like me, who are not usually on those (emergency) crews, they put us in plows and put sanders on our trucks.”

Storms like this one mean his normal daytime eight hours turns into a 12-hour overnight shift. In the wee hours of the morning, Deo is out spreading sand and salt on the major roads, so by the time everyone else wakes up, those roads are as drivable as possible.

Clearing the roads for others can mean he himself drives in icy conditions to get to work, Deo’s vehicle has four-wheel drive, and he lives close enough to Kerby Garage, where the road vehicles are stored, that it hasn’t been a problem for him. But he knows other utility workers who have to book nearby hotel rooms or sleep on cots in the garage. That’s just part of being an essential worker, he said.

“Some people’s lives are not beholden to snow and ice,” Deo said. “Some people need to get to the hospital or go to their jobs, like firemen and first responders…. If we didn’t keep the roads drivable, nothing essential would get done.”

Ten tons of sand and salt

“After about two days days of adrenaline, there’s a lot of crashing that goes on. Your body starts to go, ‘I need some decent sleep here!’ … There’s a lot of energy drinks, and some nasty coffee.” –Laborers Local 483 member Kelly Landreth, heavy equipment operator at the City of Portland

Like Deo, Local 483 member Kelly Landreth sees her job as a City of Portland construction equipment operator change with the weather. Instead of running the heavy equipment to repair sewer lines, she steps into a backhoe to load 7 to 14 tons of sand and salt into city trucks.

“We are there to help, but I get more thanks digging sewer lines than I do on sand piles, because people don’t see us,” Landreth said. “We are kind of hidden away.”

Her supervisors keep a close eye on weather forecasts, so crews have as much time to prepare as possible. Typically the more lead time city crews get for a storm, the better their response. It gives them time to install plows onto city trucks, and haul loaders out to designated sand piles ahead of time.

“I thought we did a really good job this time around. We got to it before it got bad,” Landreth said. “We had an ice storm years ago that was just so heavy … I don’t think anybody was prepared for that, so we had buses and cars parked everywhere, all over the place.”

Landreth has worked for the city for 24 years, so the special routine for a severe weather event “just kicks in.” Seasoned staff train new crew members how to do the job safely. Sometimes that means taking them out to “pre-run” a plowing route. Other times, it’s passing along tips about the right kinds of clothing to wear.

“We had a couple of slips and falls when the ice first got there, and then it was like, ‘Mandatory, everyone is wearing cleats,’” Landreth said. “It was night and day difference.”

Bridgetown bridge-tender

While Landreth and Deo clear roadways, Faulkner is busy clearing bridge decks — part of a crew of six that tends to the Sellwood, Hawthorne, Morrison, Burnside, Broadway, and Wapato (Sauvie Island) bridges.

Strategies for keeping the bridges clear depend on weather conditions. For snow without ice, Faulkner might opt for a snow blower. With ice, he might shovel it by hand. He also spreads sand along the bridge deck, focusing on elevated areas and “stop-start points” where drivers are most likely to change speed. He adds gravel to sidewalks, too, so pedestrians can get through.

“We get a lot of thumbs up, a lot of thank yous, a lot of appreciation. … The only people who ever give us a hard time are the cross country skiers who want to come across the bridges and (find) the sidewalks are clear,” he joked.

Storm work continues even after the ice melts, Faulkner said; that’s when he has to clear roads of the sand he laid down for traction. Loose gravel provides traction when ice is present, but  becomes a hazard after the melt. Gravel can damage a windshield if another vehicle kicks it up into the air. It also makes sidewalks “slippery,” like walking on lots of tiny marbles. 

So Faulkner straps on a backpack blower and treks for miles blowing sand on bridges onto areas where a street sweeper — operated by another union member — can pick it up.

Faulkner says he likes the cold weather snow event routine. “It’s kind of an adrenaline junkie type thing,” Faulkner said. “You are out there, you’re making a difference. You’re helping people out that normally wouldn’t need help.”


FROZEN WATER BUREAU

Power lines weren’t the only casualty in January’s ice-pocalypse. Pipes and water mains also took a beating. All told, members of AFSCME Local 189 at Portland Water Bureau took 4,434 distress calls, performed 1,256 emergency shutoffs, and repaired 27 water main breaks.

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