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Superintendent Dick Crawford, left, and Deputy Superintendent Norm `Skip` Mrkall, led the town Highway Department's latest snow-fighting effort. In the snowplow behind them are driver Gary Lazik and Jake Gleave.
Superintendent Dick Crawford, left, and Deputy Superintendent Norm "Skip" Mrkall, led the town Highway Department's latest snow-fighting effort. In the snowplow behind them are driver Gary Lazik and Jake Gleave.

Snowstorm success: Town Highway crew's response a winter winner

Sat, Jan 27th 2024 07:00 am

Story and Photos By Karen Carr Keefe

Senior Contributing Writer

In the days prior to Jan. 13, the forecast was for high winds and heavy snow. Grand Island was on the radar for 8 to 12 inches, and the town Highway Department was ready with plenty of plows, personnel and a plan to combat the forces of nature.

Superintendent Dick Crawford and Deputy Superintendent Norm “Skip” Mrkall monitored the storm warnings and put their plan into action.

When the snow came, then kept on falling – about 2 to 3 feet over next 10 or 11 days – Grand Island was well-prepared to deal with it.

“When it’s a continuous snowfall, when the wind is blowing like it was the first two days of it – the first day, anyways – it was like a mini-blizzard,” Crawford said.

He explained there were visibility issues, but nothing that would pull the crews off the road.

The storm required a lot of hard work for the department’s 15-person road team, exceeding 12-hour shifts at times. Department officials were on duty for the duration, as well.

Their success can be measured by the positive feedback from residents both in the neighborhoods and on social media.

At the Jan. 16 Town Board meeting, Supervisor Peter Marston had high praise for the Highway Department’s efforts in battling the snow.

“Mr. Crawford and your team, bravo! Great job, as always,” he said. “Everybody brags about how good our Highway Department does, and you guys never disappoint.”

Crawford explained their system.

“We are big on safety and how the guys are preparing for their routes,” he said. “Our setup is that Skip and I are constantly on radar and we look at different maps. We look at the jet stream, we look at the winds. We look at everything and try to be our own meteorologists.”

“We have our own mini-station here,” Mrkall said, pointing to a box set up in the department that conveys pertinent weather data.

“We prepare for the worst and we go out and monitor what’s going on,” Crawford said.

Mrkall explained that having enough road salt is one of the challenges.

“Getting salt has been difficult,” he said. “Just to get it shipped here has been tough. We’ve been really low on salt. So, during the heavy snow, we had to cut back on using salt. The subdivisions, all we did was salt intersections to save on salt.”

The long roads got the full treatment, Mrkall said.

“We got a few hundred ton of salt; that kind of helped us out a little bit,” he said. “Now we have 600 ton. I’m ordering another 300 ton today we’re waiting for.”

Mrkall explained that the bottleneck is that the suppliers – theirs is in Mount Morris, New York – can only load so many trucks at a time from the salt mine.

The storm had the town using 1,500 to 1,800 tons of salt to clear the roads, Crawford said.

“We use magnesium chloride (liquid form) when it gets 20 degrees or below,” he said, to help activate the rock salt.

A truck pulls up to the town’s salt barn on Tuesday, Jan. 23, to deliver 300 tons of road salt.


The town has eight plow routes, one of which is assigned to a “floater,” in covering all the town and county roads. Mrkall mans a ninth piece of snow-fighting equipment, a pickup truck, to push back snow in big intersections so the plow drivers don’t have to make two or three passes through those.

The town Highway Department plows and/or salts 78.32 miles of local roads, along with 35.81 miles of county-owned roads. The state plows Grand Island Boulevard and Beaver Island (South State) Parkway.

Crawford and Mrkall both go out and monitor each storm situation to check conditions and make sure all equipment is deployed in the most effective way.

“It’s like an orchestra,” Crawford said. “The guys, they know their routes. They know to call in if something looks crazy to them. One guy might get done with his route a little bit earlier, and there’s a call out, ‘Who needs help.’ ”

 “It’s collectively a symphony, playing together, getting rid of that white stuff,” Crawford said.

Mrkall said he basically lived at the department’s facilities at 1820 Whitehaven Road for the duration of the stretch of snowy days last week.

Crawford pointed out that, on the toughest of the days, some of the crew worked straight from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“You know, those run together, so we monitor those days and we hope we get a break in the weather,” he said. When it doesn’t snow overnight or snow continuously, they don’t have to call the workers back in. “So, we try to get them off the road so they get five, six hours of sleep,” Crawford said.

“But we had guys in, every morning, for at least eight days in a row,” Mrkall added.

“We’re fortunate that we have very committed and dedicated employees that, when we make that call at 3 o’clock, 99% of the time, every guy is here,” Crawford said.

He noted, “We have backups – guys that come in and jump in the seat – through the other departments. On top of that, our Parks Department is out there at the same time, making sure the library is open, the Golden Age Center is open. The wastewater and water departments are out there opening up all their stations to make sure the sanitary and the water facilities are all running correctly.”

Crawford added that they have regular meetings with the Grand Island Central School District, as well, to make sure the proper procedures and policies are in place, as well as shared equipment used between the town and the schools. He said there are also warming stations designated in strategic spots around the Island, in case of power outages or any kind of emergency event.

They estimated that perhaps a total of 100 Grand Island customers lost power for a short time during the recent snowstorm.

Grand Islander Bob Gormady snow blows his driveway on Jan. 19, seven days into this winter’s most recent snow event.


The Highway Department has a good-sized fleet of snow-clearing equipment and makes a priority of fleet maintenance. They were supposed to take delivery of a new plow truck last year but it got canceled because the truck didn’t get built. It’s in the budget and now may be available for later in the year.

Crawford also said the department is grateful to residents for their cooperation.

“It’s a lot easier to a plow a subdivision when there’s no cars in the street,” he said.

Most residents have complied with the rule to have cars off the street between the hours of 2-7 a.m. between Nov. 1 and March 31.

“There have not been any tickets written yet, but it’s coming,” Crawford said of the few scofflaws. “Those of you out there who aren’t cooperating, please, park your car in the driveway.”

A driving ban had been in effect from 9 p.m. Jan. 13 through the next day at 3:30 p.m. for Grand Island and other northern suburbs. Other areas, such as South Buffalo, Cheektowaga and Lancaster, were harder hit and had a longer ban. Factors such as this necessitated closing Grand Island schools for snow days Jan. 17-19.

Lennox Keefe, 6, of Grand Island, enjoys making a snow angel after school.


Crawford stressed that success in clearing snow-covered roads is built upon always having a plan.

“We don’t wait for the event to come to us; we go to the event by preparing ahead of time,” he said. “If it’s a major, major event, we have a town meeting with all the departments.”

This time, he said such a meeting wasn’t necessary.

“To us, it was just another snowstorm,” Crawford said. “Yeah, there was going to be winds and snow, but that’s our business this time of the year.”

That was different than the Christmas blizzard of 2022, he said, when they had cots in a Red Cross trailer, blankets and food on hand at the Highway Department to handle overnight stays for a major snow event.

Mrkall had praise for the department’s crew during Mother Nature’s most challenging weather.

“Without the cooperation of our guys, highway employees, I cannot stress this enough – we’re nothing,” he said. “These guys are out there. They’ll do what needs to be done and they’ll keep doing it till it’s done. They’re fantastic.”

Crawford reflected back on the severity of the 2022 blizzard that began on Christmas Eve.

“You get through a storm like that, which we did, and by 2 o’clock on Christmas Day, Grand Island was open,” he recalled.

He said the City of Buffalo, for example, has different challenges. Crawford said the city was better prepared this time than in the deadly storm of 2022, with greater cooperation between the state, the county and the city, and the help of plowing subcontractors.

“They have to truck their snow out, where we don’t,” he said. “We can push it to the side and worry about repairing a couple of mailboxes at the end of the event.”

“Even this last event, it didn’t have the magnitude, but it had elements of it – and our roads, we got them open,” Crawford said of the Grand Island effort. “We preplan. We’re looking at it – whatever the extent of the storm that’s predicted – that we’re going to be on our own for 24 to 72 hours,” because of the geographic reality of being an island.

“So, we prepare for that,” he said, to help gas stations and stores open up and provide services. “Then if we need any outside assistance, it's there.”

Crawford credited the town’s Parks and Water Department and others for their help during snow events.

“It’s one big family combating Mother Nature,” he said.

A goldfinch at backyard feeder on Revere Road wears his winter coat of brown as he feeds on sunflower seeds.

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