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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As a holiday storm bears down, some brace for a long week at work

Alex Salik, an equipment operator at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, cleared a runway in Grand Rapids, Mich.

By Mitch Smith

There is little ambiguity in the forecast: A winter storm is coming. It will be brutal. And it could derail your Christmas plans.

The storm, which was expected to sweep across much of the country’s eastern half beginning Wednesday, is expected to bring wind chills as low as minus 40 to Kansas, blizzard conditions to Illinois and heavy snow to Michigan.

For those in the affected areas, forecasters warn that when the Arctic air swings through, it will arrive quickly, with temperatures dropping 25 to 35 degrees in only a few hours.

The system is also expected to plunge temperatures below freezing as far south as Texas and Florida, and produce powerful winds across a large portion of the country.

For many Americans, the lousy weather will threaten holiday travel and make leaving home treacherous. But for thousands of others, whose jobs place them on the front lines of the weather, the storm will mean a particularly challenging, uncomfortable and perhaps dangerous week at work.

Rory Wolters

It has already been a busy year for Wolters and his crew, which is in charge of keeping the runways clear at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

But after two significant storms earlier in the season, Wolters, a field maintenance supervisor, said this week’s weather could be the worst of all.

When the storm hits Michigan, likely on Thursday and Friday, Wolters’ team will fan out across the runway in specialized plows that include brooms on the back. Others will follow behind with high-powered blowers and sand.

“My staff is looking forward to this: This is what we prepare for every year,” said Wolters, who will lead 12-hour shifts that start at 3:30 a.m. “These guys are excited. We wait for big storms like this.”

Thursday afternoon into Friday morning, the storm will rapidly strengthen across the Midwest and Great Lakes. As it does, it will produce winds strong enough that even small amounts of snow could greatly reduce visibility.

For those passing through the Grand Rapids airport this week, Wolters had just one request.

“Be patient,” he said. “These guys are putting a lot of hours in. It’s very stressful out there. Visibility out there can be very low. Just bear with us.”

Seth Sprouse

When nasty weather blows through Wisconsin, Sprouse knows his phone could ring at any hour with word of a power line that needs to be repaired.

“If the storm comes in, in the middle of the night, and the outages start rolling in, you just go get your truck from the shop,” said Sprouse, a lineman with Alliant Energy in the Beloit, Wisconsin, area.

A winter storm watch was already set to take effect in Wisconsin on Thursday, with the possibility of blizzard conditions and wind gusts that could down trees and lead to power outages. As the system gets closer, Sprouse said, linemen will start following outage maps in other states to get a sense of what might be store for them.

“It’s definitely hard to be away from your family, especially during the holidays, and it’s challenging to be out in the cold and stay motivated,” he said. But, he added, “there’s a lot of satisfaction in showing up to something that’s a big mess on the ground and by the time you leave, you’ve got it fixed and the lights are back on.”

Though people in Wisconsin are used to winter weather, this system could also create power challenges in states far less accustomed to freezing temperatures, including Texas, where many remain traumatized by the failure of state’s grid during a winter storm in February 2021.

Forecasters and energy experts said the weather in Texas was not predicted to be as cold and snowy as last year, when the power went out for days in huge portions of the state and hundreds of people died. The head of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages most of the state’s electric power, called the grid “resilient and reliable.”

But the grid is not the only worry in Texas. As hundreds of migrants continue to arrive at the southern border, freezing temperatures could create dangerous conditions for those wading across the Rio Grande or sleeping on the streets in border cities like El Paso.

Wendy Daniels

Holidays often lead to a rush of customers at the Breakthrough Fresh Market food pantry on Chicago’s West Side, where ham, turkey and eggs for Christmas dinners have been in high demand this week.

“They’re already sort of choosing between, ‘Hey, do I pay my light bill or buy groceries?’” said Wendy Daniels, the associate director of food services at Breakthrough. “So now it’s like, ‘Do I pay my light bill, buy groceries or try and get my daughter something for Christmas?’”

But Daniels said severe weather could pose a barrier to receiving that assistance. She was expecting an influx of customers Thursday, just as the storm starts bearing down on Chicago. By Friday, the National Weather Service warned that travel in the city could be difficult to impossible and that the cold could be life-threatening.

Many of the volunteers who bag groceries at Breakthrough are older and have trouble getting there in rough weather, Daniels said. So do some of the customers, many of whom walk to the food pantry or arrive on public transit.

Daniels still planned to be there.

“I can’t be tired,” she said, “because it’s what I’m called to do.”

Sgt. Ted Bohner

For Christmas travelers making their way through north-central Indiana this week, and for the state troopers patrolling those roads, it would be hard to imagine a more daunting forecast.

“The timing, in my opinion, couldn’t be worse,” said Bohner of the Indiana State Police.

Dealing with snowy roads, and with the Christmas travel rush, comes with the territory of being a state trooper. But this storm, Bohner said, was particularly worrisome, with the potential for high winds, sustained snowfall and rapidly falling temperatures that could leave a layer of ice on the highways, all on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

For Bohner, that means routine parts of his job can become potentially deadly ones.

“What could typically be an inconvenience like changing a tire on the side of the road, with visibility and the cold temperatures, could be a life-and-death situation,” he said.

Bohner said people planning to travel in his region Friday should reconsider their holiday plans. His plans have changed, too. Instead of being on vacation Friday, as he had planned, he will be at work on Indiana’s snowy highways.

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