We Spent A Day With LA County's Storm Warriors Keeping Our Roads Safe And Clear
Riding in a 10-wheeler truck with a plow on the front and a sander on the back, this back road through the San Gabriel Mountains in Angeles National Forest feels smooth as it slopes upward.
But glancing from the passenger’s side of this Los Angeles County Public Works truck, I see a vast, steep dropoff into the white mountains as snow flies fast toward the windshield. It looks like warp speed in a sci-fi movie.
Behind the wheel of this plow is Kevin Gross, a Public Works crew leader who has worked for the county for more than 15 years. It’s not even 9 a.m. but Gross has been on shift since midnight, clearing what he calls “materials” from these mountain passes so commuters can use them again when the storm passes.
“Basically just plowed roads all morning,” he said. “Angeles Forest Highway, Sierra Highway, Soledad Canyon Road, these main commuter routes.”
The midnight crew
Gross is one of seven crew members driving plows on this midnight to noon shift.
As we drive along watching the snow spray out from the plow, forming neat rows on either side of the road, I suggest that snow plow drivers have their own special wave when they pass one another. Gross recommends the fist pump from The Breakfast Club. I recommend finger guns. We land somewhere in the middle.
He says these roads aren’t just for hikers anymore; now they’re common commuting roads.
“If we weren’t here plowing the snow no one would be able to get up here,” Gross said. “A lot of people use it every morning to bypass the 14 because it’s a lot faster for getting over to the 210. This is a major road now.”
Getting stuck — and unstuck
Constantly underneath our conversation is the chatter of the radio. The seven crews stay in contact in case someone needs help or gets stuck. Like we did.
We came around a bend to find another plow was already jammed deep into a snow berm. As we slowed to avoid it we butted up against the guard rail on the cliff and couldn’t pull out of it. Two crews were there within minutes to help us.
Today I adventured through the mountains in @Angeles_NF with @LACoPublicWorks to bring you a feature on @LAist about mountain snow removal crews. Web post will be up soon but in the meantime, here are some fun snapshots of the day. pic.twitter.com/IMcBNvRsWY— Jackie Orchard (@_JackieOrchard) February 24, 2023
“It’s all about teamwork out here,” said a man in a neon vest and a hard hat with a slight tinge of a New York accent. That man, squinting through the blizzard, was Allan Abramson.
Eyes and ears on the ground
Abramson is a principal engineer with Public Works, specifically the district engineer for road maintenance in the Antelope Valley. He mostly oversees crews from a small command center down the road. Back at his office, he tells me he oversees road maintenance for all of Antelope Valley, no matter the weather.
“We have mountain operations and an urban forestry unit,” he said.
Abramson has been in Palmdale for six years, and says the purpose of his 18-person field team is to keep travelers safe.
On Sunday we can expect that there’s going to be a lot of families who say, ‘Hey let’s get the kids in the car, go to the mountains, and go play in the snow.' And they will come up to the mountains unprepared, with [the wrong] clothing and no snow chains.
“The storm is supposed to blow out on Saturday, so on Sunday we can expect that there’s going to be a lot of families who say, ‘Hey let’s get the kids in the car, go to the mountains, and go play in the snow,’” he said. “And they will come up to the mountains unprepared, with [the wrong] clothing and no snow chains.”
Abramson says the weather on a mountain changes rapidly, so the conditions you start out in, like rain, can become heavy snow within moments as you gain elevation.
Meanwhile, at mission control
The Public Works building in Alhambra has a dead quiet room, resembling NASA mission control. Desks are set in a semi-circle facing large monitors that display weather patterns and real-time updates on a map of L.A. County.
In the back row, clicking away at a doppler reading, is “Storm Boss” Eric Batman.
So, yes: Batman is the senior civil engineer at Public Works. He monitors weather and controls the water levels of dams and reservoirs; his team of 15 engineers and technicians oversees 14 dams and 27 spreading grounds.
When storms move in, this is the team that makes sure water goes where it’s supposed to.
“The system has two main purposes: number one, provide flood protection, number two, capture as much stormwater runoff as we can. And when we capture it, we'll put it into the ground for storage and for future use,” Batman said.
The success of stormwater capture techniques varies throughout the county. The infrastructure has been improved over the past several years.
A flood of information
A Flash Flood Warning is in effect for interior portions of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties through 10pm TONIGHT. Heavy rain will likely continue through much of the day with additional rainfall of 2 to 5 inches possible. #CAwx #LArain pic.twitter.com/bkAHn0QfWU— NWS Los Angeles (@NWSLosAngeles) February 24, 2023
Public Works and the National Weather Service work together to predict when big storms are rolling in. As the storm gets closer the forecast gets more refined and Batman forms a clearer picture of how to control water levels.
“So for example, for this event, it's looking like a good amount of rain is going to fall — multiple inches in the coast and valleys and even more up in the mountain areas,” he said. “What that means to us is that we can expect a good amount of runoff to occur.”
Batman has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's in environmental engineering with a focus on water resources. When he sees heavy rainfall coming, his job is to prep the team at Public Works to capture rain as it comes down and to divert excess water into big, open natural areas.
“And it just goes into the ground and percolates into the ground and reaches the aquifers below,” Batman said. “As the storm progresses, we may need to make releases from the dams to manage the reservoir level in the appropriate range to provide that flood protection, and also balance that with stormwater capture activity.”
The dams have wiggle room to release excess water into reservoirs, avoiding flooding.
Public Works Director Mark Pestrella oversees aspects of daily life that most people don’t need to think too much about: water, waste, transportation, sewers, development and, in the stormy season, emergency management.
“In 35 years, I've only had that blizzard warning maybe three times,” Pestrella said. “So that's an unusual event for L.A. County.”
L.A. is known for its traffic, and Pestrella says to expect that to worsen during the storm.
“What we're expecting is road closures,” he said. “So we're doing preventative road closures to make sure people stay safe. And we're asking the public to be very, very conscious of what roads are open or closed at any given time.”
Snowplows? In LA?
In the past few days Pestrella has received calls from local governments across the country offering to help deal with the storm. He said he’s been turning down the offers because his team is prepared.
“In fact, we have a whole mountain ops team,” Pestrella said. “Snow plows and everything you would expect to see in places like Buffalo and across the country to prepare our roads and our communities.”
But to be safe, residents should plan to stay off the roads Friday and Saturday and check road conditions frequently, he said.
“Six inches of water can move a vehicle,” Pestrella said. “A foot of water will take you and sweep you right down the road. So what we tell people is to drive the speed limit or a little less and could you please, if you go to work, not go out afterward. So it’s really preparing to do your work, get home, and sheltering in place while we go through this.”
Batman said he’s been the “Storm Boss” for eight years, and every year is different. He said the operations center has a team to handle everything from roadways to water, but in eight years, he’s never seen snow.
“Halfway up the mountains, we're talking two to five feet of snow, which is really a rare type of occurrence,” Batman said. “At our highest peak at 10,000 feet, eight feet of snow. So that is very unique for L.A. County.”
As I write this, it is just past noon, which means Kevin Gross just changed shifts and his hands are probably still numb from driving a plow for 12 hours. Allan Abramson might be standing in the Palmdale wind smoking a cigarette I’m not supposed to tell anyone about. He’s calling in updates to Storm Boss Eric Batman, who then escalates issues to Director Mark Pestrella, who tells all of us to please, please stay off the roads.
All while most of us simply step outside in the wrong outfit and say, “Oh man, it’s raining today? Since when?”
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