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'It's been a mess': Snow removal crews push through challenges to pull Mitchell out of historic blizzard

One issue that arose during the blizzard was drivers disregarding the city’s no travel advisory, which Schroeder said led to vehicles getting stuck on roads while plow drivers were moving snow.

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A city snow plow operator clears East Third Avenue on Wednesday afternoon in Mitchell after a blizzard dropped 23 inches of snow on the city.
Sam Fosness / Republic

MITCHELL — As Mitchell attempts to recover from a two-day blizzard that dumped nearly 2 feet of snow on the city, crews have been clocking in 15-hour shifts to clear streets and get Mitchell reopened.

While city crews’ efforts have earned praise from Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson and city council members, some residents are voicing their frustrations with the ongoing snow removal process.

Among the complaints that city leaders have fielded following the historic blizzard is the city’s parking lots being cleared before all of the streets. During Thursday's Mitchell City Council meeting, Everson explained why city lots were cleared prior to getting all the streets finished.

“There is a payloader whose sole job is to go around and clear the city parking lots. I understand there are a lot of frustrations and things going on, but this is an event we have not seen in a very long time. They are working hard to get the roads cleared,” Everson said of the city snow removal team. “I thank them for what they are doing.”

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Parking Lots around Mitchell are home to giant piles of snow on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Public Works Director Joe Schroeder provided a glimpse of the challenges city crews are up against in their tall task to plow Mitchell out of 23 inches of snow that fell from Monday into Tuesday, which was the second highest single-day snowfall total in the city’s history.

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One issue that arose during the blizzard that subsided on Wednesday afternoon was drivers disregarding the city’s no travel advisory on Tuesday, which Schroeder said led to a number of vehicles getting stuck along roads while plow drivers were out. The nearly 2 feet of snow buried some vehicles to the point of them not being visible, but Schroeder said not one car was hit by a plow.

“There were some people who abandoned their cars in the street when they got stuck. We worried about hitting those vehicles. That’s another thing that slows us down,” Schroeder said. “We started plowing the entire city Wednesday morning, and we got done with east and west streets around 8 p.m. Wednesday night. The guys came back at around 10 p.m. that night, and they will go home today at noon.”

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Two cars sit stuck in the ditch along the Highway 37 bypass on Wednesday, Jan, 4, 2023, in Mitchell after a blizzard brought nearly 2 feet of snow to the city.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

As crews have been working around the clock to get Mitchell’s streets cleared, some have been met with middle fingers from residents after their paths along their driveways get a pile of snow pushed back onto them from the plows. But the number of disgruntled residents hasn't outweighed the positive residents, Schroeder said.

“People get very frustrated when their driveways get snow pushed back onto it from the plows. It’s one of those things we have to do to keep the streets open,” he said. “We’ve seen more positive support than I was anticipating.”

Another hurdle that complicated snow removal was the volume of emergency calls that first-responders had to handle, which required a snow plow operator to lead a clear path to the emergency location.

Some residents and businesses pushed snow on their property onto the streets and into public right of ways, which Schroeder noted is prohibited, per the city’s ordinance.

Despite the myriad obstacles challenging street snow removal, Schroeder said it’s “gone well,” considering the historic amount of snow that dropped on Mitchell.

Since the blizzard began Monday night, Street and Sanitation Supervisor Kevin Roth has been running on little sleep while leading the snow removal crew throughout the storm.

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In his years of leading the department through snow storms, an exhausted Roth said Friday morning that the latest blizzard will go down as “one of the most challenging storms” he’s ever handled. After all, it's one of the only storms he had to pull plow operators off the roads due to the extreme winds paired with snow on Tuesday.

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A car is completely covered in snow on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, near the Corn Palace after a blizzard brought 23 inches of snow to Mitchell.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

As Roth put it, “there is so much that goes into it,” and people don't always realize just how much.

“On a typical snow storm that usually brings about 4 to 6 inches of snow, we can do all the emergency routes, all the east and west and north and south routes in 10 to 12 hours,” Roth said, noting several crew members spent the night at city offices to push through the storm. “This time, it took us about 15 hours just to do emergency routes and east and west streets.”

Leeway given for sidewalk snow removal, parking

The city’s ordinance requires sidewalks to be cleared of snow within 48 hours after snowfall stops. But due to the heavy amount of snow in such a short time span, Mitchell Police Chief Mike Koster said leeway is being given on enforcing sidewalk snow removal codes and towing vehicles parked along east and west streets.

“There is just too much snow out there. We have to give more time to allow residents to remove nearly 2 feet of snow,” Koster said.

City officials will begin the process of assessing sidewalk conditions on Monday, Koster said.

On the parking front, Koster said the historic amount of snow that slammed Mitchell prompted only towing illegally parked vehicles on emergency routes.

“We held off towing vehicles on east and west streets. The stuff that has been towed to this point is off emergency snow routes, and vehicles that were stuck in the roadways that necessitated them from being removed,” Koster said.

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What will roads look like over the next few weeks?

On Friday morning, tractor-powered snow blowers trudged down the center traffic lines in downtown Mitchell and ridded mounds of leftover snow into a side dump truck that will be hauled to the massive snow pile site on the corner of Havens Avenue and Foster Street.

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Mitchell's Main Street is divided by a wall of snow on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, following the historic snow storm.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

It’s a rare process that’s only used when massive snow events hit like the Monday and Tuesday blizzard.

While vehicles had to navigate through streets with over 6 feet of snow separating driving lanes in downtown Mitchell this week, much of the tall piles were gone by Friday morning – marking a sign of steady progress in emerging from the blizzard.

“There is definitely an art to snow plowing,” Schroeder said.

According to Schroeder, getting curb-to-curb snow removal completed on Mitchell’s streets could stretch over the next few weeks.

As crews will be finishing up the remaining streets, Everson asked residents for a degree of patience.

“Please be patient with us. It’s been a mess,” Everson said during Thursday’s council meeting.

Mitchell received 17.2 inches of snow on Tuesday, Jan. 3 — the second-most all-time in a single day of snow on record for the city.

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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