Plow, Eat and Snooze: Snow Crew Sleeps at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport

It might not inspire confidence in air travelers to know that their safety at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport this weekend depends on a bunkhouse full of guys called Minnow, Beer Can, Floppy, Cheese and Hooter.

But those are some of the 125 snow removal workers who will plow, shovel, eat and sleep at the airport until the promised storm has passed and whose work over the years has won the airport honors for snow and ice removal.

"It's a bonding experience," said Denny Lundberg, also known as Flicker, who's in his 29th winter of trying to keep the planes moving at the airport through snow, sleet and ice.

Friday, as when any serious winter storm approaches, Lundberg and the rest of the field maintenance crew were called in for duty-till-it's-done, abandoning families and weekend plans to fight off a possible foot or foot and a half of new snow.

"I've made it clear to everybody I know: Don't count on me for anything in the winter," Lundberg said. "My wife knows that if I'm not home, I must be at work. She doesn't make plans, either. "

The boarding routine gives the Twin Cities an edge in winter storms.

Most other airports, even in snowy cities, send workers home in shifts during storms and sometimes find they can't get back, said Paul Sichko, assistant director for airport maintenance and operations.

The MSP scheme goes back decades.

Many of the crew members have personal tales of endurance, discomfort and camaraderie. Lundberg, one of the longest-timers, said that when he started, working a winter storm meant sleeping on his jacket on the floor of a maintenance shed while the more senior workers got dibs on seats in their plows.

Today, everybody sleeps in a bed in modern cinderblock quarters attached to the field operations center. Meals and showers are provided. Their entire time spent at the airport during a storm is paid.

The 1991 Halloween blizzard meant five straight days for the crew at the airport. But it's been three years since there was a similar round-the-clock call-up.

Long hours like that, plus the grueling work, have created an unusual esprit de corps among crew members. There are the nicknames, and this winter the crew dedicated its work to John Brown, who worked with them for 18 years before his recent sudden death.

"It's a nice place to work. That's why no one seems to leave here," said Jay Agger, a 24-year crew member.

Forecast, warnings

Predictions for the Twin Cities were calling for two bouts of snow. Forecasts were being scaled back Friday night to a possible 2 inches falling overnight. The snow began at the airport just before 8 p.m. Friday.

Meteorologist Paul Douglas on Friday night predicted a total accumulation of 6 to 8 inches for the Twin Cities through Sunday. The National Weather Service was continuing to predict as much as 14 to 16 inches for the metro area, with the higher amounts occurring to the southeast.

The heaviest snow was expected from the center of the metro area and into southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin. But heavy snow was expected to cover most of the state, with predictions for about a foot in St. Cloud and 8 to 12 inches from the Brainerd lakes east to the St. Croix River Valley.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation sprayed bridges, ramps and loops with anti-icing chemicals on Friday. But State Patrol Lt. Mark Peterson recommended that people stay home during the storm.

In fighting this storm, MnDOT will have two big advantages. Plows won't have to contend with rush-hour traffic, and pavement and air temperatures will be warm enough to reduce snow and ice cover, said state maintenance engineer Steve Lund.

Lund added: "This is what we snow and ice fighters live for.''

During a Feb. 6 storm, which snarled rush-hour traffic, legislators criticized MnDOT for having 45 to 50 plows sitting idle. Lund said supervisors will decide during the storm how many of the 246 plows are needed on the roads.

Winter sports

The forecast was of particular interest to people traveling to state and local high school sports tournaments this weekend.

The Crookston girls' hockey team had plans to return home by bus from St. Paul after the state tourney ends today, but the school's activities director, Tom Speltz, began Friday afternoon to make overnight arrangements in case the team, an 80-member band and hundreds of parents and fans were stuck. Speltz didn't want the weather to overshadow the tournament, though.

"We're focused on the games, and we'll let the weather take care of itself," he said.

Howard Voigt, spokesman for the Minnesota State High School League, said the league is encouraging schools and fans to travel before the snowfall peaks.

After a winter plagued by little snowfall and canceled events, the tone at the Three Rivers Park District was celebratory Friday. There are activities planned throughout the weekend and ski trails will be packed as soon as the snow ends, said outdoor recreation supervisor Tim Anderson.

"We are in the snow business," he said.

Staff writers Laurie Blake and Lora Pabst contributed to this story.

WILL WE HIT RECORDS?

If a forecast high of 16 inches or more falls in the Twin Cities, it would be:

- The greatest single snowfall in the Twin Cities since 16 inches fell on March 8-9, 1999.

- Among the 10 heaviest continuous Twin Cities snowfalls.

- Easily the Twin Cities' record snowfall for February. The current February record, 10.7 inches, was set Feb. 1-2, 2004. Normal snowfall for the month of February is 8.2 inches; this year, only 2.2 inches had fallen through Thursday. The Twin Cities' record single snowfall, of course, was the `91 Halloween blizzard, when 28.4 inches fell over four days.

Source: DNR Climatology Office



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