Aging fleet shuts down in grip of winter storm

January 17

The City of Hood River’s 42-year-old sander succumbed to old age — just as major snowstorm hit the Columbia River Gorge.

And that was just the beginning of the crisis, according to Mark Lago, director of the public works department. He said as the snow and ice began to build up on area streets, other old equipment failed. Eventually, his eight-member crew was left with only one snowplow to clear passage for almost 6,000 residents.

And the part to get that plow running arrived on the last United Parcel Service truck that was able to get to Hood River before Interstate 84 was shut down — or it would not even have been working.

“When we got that part the mechanic (Mike McCafferty) acted like it was a Christmas present, he was so excited to get a plow out on the street,” Lago said.

For years, Lago and his predecessors have been warning that the day would come when the aging fleet of service trucks would no longer be operable. He’s just sorry that prophetic warning had to prove true all at the same time.

In fact, the situation got so bad that Lago ended up appealing to Hanel Development Company and Rick Zeller Excavation for a loan of their equipment. He made that request after the grader went down, followed by two snow plows, leaving the city with a sander that could carry only a small load of material and the one plow.

But Lago said his workers, who were split between two 12-hour shifts, did almost heroic acts with the equipment they had. In fact, foreman Doug Smock didn’t even ask McCafferty to work on his truck, which had to be left running at all times because it wouldn’t start back up once it was shut off. McCafferty was the only one who knew how to operate one of the borrowed plows and would hurry out to clear a few streets before he was called back into the shop for another repair.

And, if massive equipment failure weren’t enough of a problem, Lago said vehicles were sliding into street signs, which had to be replaced for safety, and waterfront roadways not even in the city’s jurisdiction had to be cleared off to provide parking space for stranded commercial truckers. In addition, Lago said there were several sewer backups and breaks in some service water lines, all brought by the cold weather.

“I’m not sleeping right now trying to deal with this situation, we’re getting a lot of complaints about uncleared streets but we’re doing the best we can,” Lago said. To make matters worse, the city street sweeper is not working either, and Lago anticipates having to find $4,000-$6,000 in his budget for a rental.

“It’s amazing we got through this and when we hear about the possibility of another storm the hair on the backs of our necks just stands up,” he said.

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