The Block Island Times

A ride in the snow

On the road with Highway Supervisor Mike Shea
By Stephanie Turaj | Jan 28, 2014
Photo by: Stephanie Turaj Mike Shea sits in the cab of his snow plow as he tackles the roads during the latest Block Island snowstorm.

“It can be beautiful sometimes to stop and watch the storm,” says Mike Shea. “Not a lot of people get a chance to see it like this — especially when the sun comes up and starts breaking through the clouds.”

At first, it might be hard to see how the town’s highway supervisor can categorize his job — plowing snow for sometimes 30-hour shifts during a winter storm — as beautiful. But as I ride along with Mike and we drive down Spring Street, the snow billows across the road and in front of the truck, engulfing us in a white mist, but I can still make out the gray ocean waves as they crash in the distance.

That doesn’t mean “beautiful” makes the job easy.

“We’ll be going all night,” says Mike. “And once the sun comes up, it’s probably going to look like we didn’t do anything, which is frustrating.”

I went along with Mike on Tuesday, Jan. 21, to see what it’s like to work for the town road crew during a snowstorm. It was about 5 p.m., when the storm was supposed to be picking up. There were four town trucks on the road, including Mike’s: two smaller ones and two large plows. Island resident Joe Sprague and his crew were also helping out.

Mike picked me up in one of the large orange trucks. He was already sipping a large mug of coffee the minute I jumped in, and later tells me he’s been up since 5 a.m. It starts with sanding the roads before the storm, then of course the plowing. The work will continue until the next day. The crew is responsible for clearing town and state roads and parking lots. They don’t handle private roads or lots.

“We’re headed up the west side,” he tells me. He further says the crew does loops throughout town, “just keeping up” with the accumulation and the wind, which blows the snow into drifts. Each driver has his own route, but the group switches the routes throughout the night.

Mike seems to think this particular storm isn’t going to be as bad as predicted. But he also notes the wind makes it difficult — even the slightest change in the wind direction changes the way the snow builds up. The winds were northeast at the moment, but were predicted to change to northwest, according to Mike.

“No two storms are the same,” he explains. “I’ve seen some strange things. I’ve seen nothing on the east side of the island and there’s more snow on the west side.”

He continues, “Something always happens. Something will happen tonight — a truck will break down, we’ll get a flat tire, something.” He recalls tales of windshield wipers being blown off in the middle of the storm and trucks getting stuck in snow.

Mike has been on the road crew for 21 years. While he didn’t grow up on-island, he said he was visiting for most of his life. In 1985, a supposed two-week trip to the island became permanent. A few years later, he applied for the job on the road crew. Back then, he says, the crew was just him and Adrian Mitchell.

“I do love it. It’s a great job,” he says, explaining that his other duties include brush-cutting, maintaining the beaches, cemeteries, and cleaning up the island. But he adds, “The winters are not as fun as they used to be. They used to be adventurous, now it’s just sort of dreaded. But it’s part of the job.”

At a few points during the ride, when our conversation lulls, there’s not much sound other than the roar of the truck and the storm outside. We’ve probably been on the road for about a half hour. It feels like much longer. I can’t imagine doing this all night.

“As you can see, it definitely gets a little monotonous,” comments Mike, adding that there’s not even a radio in the truck. (He later says he prefers driving in the smaller plows, because they do have radios.)

It’s also hard to see. It’s dark out and the blowing snow creates a whiteout effect. Everything looks the same, covered in white, and I can’t even count how many times I had no idea where I was. Our route took us up West Side Road, through the west side, and down past the Southeast Light. We turned around at the statue of Rebecca and drove the same route back.

“On this side of the island, there are no streetlights. Sometimes, with the wind blowing, you’re not quite sure where you are,” he says.

I comment that Mike must know the roads better than most people on the island. He agrees. He says this knowledge of the roads helps them navigate when there’s a whiteout — “sometimes you’re not even positive you’re on the road” — but he adds that looking out for a landmark, such as a rock, tree or sign, helps tell him where he is.

At one point, I blurt out loud that I don’t know where I am. Right then, we drive past my apartment complex, and I feel silly. I ask Mike to drop me off.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay out all night?” he asks, joking. I tell him thanks, but no thanks, and he wishes me a good night’s sleep.


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