Two weeks of winter weather have taxed Raleigh’s government and residents alike, as rounds of ice and snow have disrupted services, knocked trees onto roads, disabled water mains and forced city employees to work overtime.
At the public utilities department, repair teams are sleeping in cots each night, ready to service broken pipes. At the police department, suit-and-tie detectives and even the department’s selective-enforcement unit – the SWAT team – have been on call to hit the streets, directing traffic or helping stranded motorists.
And with trash collection falling behind schedule, the city has enlisted employees from other departments to help scoop bins from snowy streets.
Snow and glaze have delayed collection by more than a week. The first blast of weather that arrived Feb. 16 forced the city to pull its regular trash service off the roads, according to Fred Battle, director of the Solid Waste Services Department. About five trucks got stuck when they tried to run routes that day, and one slid backward into a car, Battle said.
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The city managed to pick up about 5 percent of last week’s Tuesday’s route, and collection trucks stayed off the roads for the rest of the week.
“This has never happened,” Battle said of the waves of ice and snow.
The collection crews had planned to get back on schedule this week starting Tuesday, but all-day snow again ruined the roads, Battle said. Facing a backlog of more than a week, the city called in reinforcements.
About 20 employees of the parks and the public utilities departments joined the collection effort, which is set to continue through the weekend, when there normally isn’t service.
The extra employees will pick up “overflow” bags of garbage left beside the regular bins. Collection crews will run overtime through Sunday to catch up, at a cost of about $40,000. Wake County will keep trash transfer stations open for the city.
“Next week, we should be back on a regular cycle,” Battle said.
Brad Crone, president of the Charleston Ridge Home Owners Association in West Raleigh, said the city set itself up for a difficult situation. He thinks the city should have run crews through last weekend in order to get service back on schedule.
“We’ve got trash piling up on the corners. It’s just really frustrating,” said Crone, a political strategist and media consultant. “In the winter, you better pick trash up when you can.”
Battle said he didn’t call in a weekend shift because conditions hadn’t improved enough.
“The roads were still in icy condition,” he said. “Safety is our first concern.”
Temperatures had stuck below freezing until Saturday, when they warmed to about 40 degrees in the afternoon. Sunday intensified the melt with a high of 60 degrees. Monday stayed above freezing, too, but Battle decided not to run a shift that day, either.
“Residents would not have known to put their cans out on that short of a notice – so to not create a lot of confusion it was best for us to just start over,” he said. The city already had asked residents to pull their bins in when possible.
And a lack of clarity in meteorological predictions, he said, left the department surprised by Tuesday’s snow.
The recent contrasts of withering lows and the occasional warmup have been rough on the city’s pipes. Raleigh has dealt with 31 water main ruptures this month, 70 percent more than normal. One recent day had nine breaks, including one in the Brentwood neighborhood.
“The areas where we have the oldest infrastructure are where we experience main breaks when you have the huge temperature swings,” said Robert Massengill, assistant public utilities director.
Massengill pointed to the problems as justification for a proposed hike in utility rates, which would help pay for replacements and repairs. The city has had shifts of four sleeping at its operation center to deal with the breaks, which can take a day to replace and sometimes disrupt water service.
“We have cots, we have microwaves and things, and MREs,” Massengill said.
The city also was relying on backup diesel generators at dozens of facilities after Wednesday night’s storm.
Even warm weather won’t end the strain. The pipes often break in the thaw.