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When winter weather is forecast, local officials take precautions

Terry Haynes, Unicoi County road superintendent, stands alongside one of the powerful snow plow and salt trucks at the Unicoi County Highway Department. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

While nothing says winter quite like a beautiful, white snow, when inclement weather hits, the Unicoi County Highway Department works around the clock to ensure the roads are as safe as possible for vehicular traffic.

If ice or snow is anticipated, the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department contacts the Highway Department and they begin salting the roads as a precautionary measure. Unicoi County has a small budget of about $80,000 to $90,000 allocated for the salt they use to treat the roads.

“We really try to save as much salt as possible because once that salt is gone it’s gone,” said Terry Haynes, Unicoi County road superintendent.

Thankfully the salt itself will keep well, and due to the milder winter last year, there was a bin of salt leftover. According to Haynes, the price of the salt can vary from year to year.

“We have to bid our salt, and we’ve been fortunate to be able to use a salt supplier really close by,” said Haynes. “That saves us from having to transport it from Knoxville or Virginia. We can afford to pay a little more because we’re saving on mileage costs, and that’s really a blessing.”

He said that they always try to pretreat the roads if they get enough of a heads up, but due to discrepancies in weather reports it isn’t always possible. They were only expecting to get flurries with the snow that began on Dec. 8, but instead some areas of the county saw six inches.

With the snow that came down that day, Haynes described the south end of the county along with the Limestone Cove area being hit the worst and receiving six or seven inches. Closer to town, and into the downtown Erwin area, there was only three or four inches.

“This past snow it was a wet snow and that kind of gave us a heads up because we could just push a lot of it off the road, but around one or two in the morning on Saturday it warmed up and melted, and then by Sunday it had frozen into black ice,” Haynes explained. “So we had to get out again on Sunday morning and get some men out to treat the slick places.” 

The Unicoi County Highway Department uses snow plow trucks with a blade that’s designed to fit on the front of a four-wheel drive vehicle. This way they can use the blade to push snow off the road and salt the roads at the same time. The snow is pushed off at the front and then salt is applied at the back of the vehicle as they move along.

“I don’t have a whole lot of personnel anymore, and we’re having a lot of equipment breakdowns,” said Haynes. “I’ve got 10 trucks, and I have to have 10 commercially licensed, or CDL, drivers and then I have a crew for maintenance. We have to have a mechanic on duty. If we lose a truck by wreck or damage, then we really have to double up and that means working continuously.”

When Haynes and his crews go out to salt the roads they work around the clock. He said there’s times the men will pull over to try and get an hour’s nap in, but there’s often no time to spare for even short breaks.

He said with this past snow, as fast as they could push the snow off the roads, it was coming back down. In the 20 years that Haynes has been in office he’s seen community members bring them food as well as donations from local Pizza Huts.

“We’ve really been blessed, and it’s all a partnership,” Haynes said. We’re not out here working for ourselves, we’re working for the citizens of Unicoi County. The county is very fortunate to have men working at the Highway Department as dedicated as they are to serving the county. These guys really take pride in their work.”

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For school dismissal procedures for inclement weather, Unicoi County School system officials always try to air on the side of caution when making judgement calls on school delays, closings or early dismissals.

“A lot of times we’re working off of weather forecasts and like the situation on Friday Dec. 8, things can get out of hand quickly when winter weather hits,” said John English, director of schools for Unicoi County. “Oftentimes we make a decision based on a forecast that may not come to fruition, but one thing a lot of people don’t understand is that it can be a totally different situation in our mountain regions.”

English said that it’s common for the mountainous regions such as Limestone Cove, Spivey and Coffee Ridge to receive several more inches of snow or ice compared to other areas in the county.

“Our number one priority is to do what will be in the best interest of the students, and sometimes that doesn’t match up with parent’s schedules, but we have to think about kids driving,” English said. “Last time we were out it wasn’t so much for snow as it was for wind chill and freezing temperatures. You have to think about kids waiting at bus stops or possibly having to walk long distances for rides.”

If there is a forecast for snow, early in the morning around 5 a.m. English and other school officials will get in touch with people across the county in higher elevations and get a report on the conditions there before making a decision.

“I would rather have 15 or 20 conversations with people that are upset that we’re out than one conversation with a parent where there’s been some sort of accident,” English explained. 

Each school year there are 13 extra days built in to be used for closings in cases of inclement weather. When Unicoi County Schools are closed or on a delay, all news stations as well as both the Erwin Police Department and Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department are notified.

Dismissals are also posted on the Unicoi County Schools Twitter and Facebook pages. There is an automatic text alert system that parents are encouraged to sign up for.

Whenever there are school closings, delays, early dismissals or lockdowns, those that are on the alert system will automatically receive a text message. Parents can call the secretary at each school with more information on signing up for the automatic text alert system.

“I would like to thank the Highway Department for keeping the roads safe, and the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department for how helpful they were in helping the kids get home safely with the recent snow,” said English.