The public works department of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, stands ready to respond to harsh winter weather. Front, from left: Marc Picard, Robin Huguenin, Mary Ann Conroy, Tom Dupuis, Jamie Boynton. Back, from left: Dennis Poisson, Roger Stevens, Mike McCallum, Tim Crowley, Rick Reny, Mike Perrone, Jim Fish. Photo: Old Orchard Beach department of public works

Snow is a simple substance, but it can be a powerful force. If enough of it attacks a city at once, it can bring traffic to a crawl, collapse roofs—even bring down a mayor.

Chicago mayor Michael Bilandic presided over the Windy City during the blizzard of 1979, when a record-breaking snowfall of 29 inches accumulated over a two-week span. The severe storm caught Streets and Sanitation Department crews unprepared, and Bilandic caught the blame. Underdog candidate Jane Byrne took advantage of the public's anger at the sitting mayor and rode to victory in the next election, snatching Bilandic's post away from him.

City officials across the country have learned from experience—Bilandic's and their own—in fighting snow storms. Most public works departments are armed to the teeth, ready for whatever winter mischief Mother Nature might throw their way.

Mary Ann Conroy is director of public works for Old Orchard Beach, Maine, a seaside town 10 minutes from the larger city of Portland. Because Old Orchard Beach entertains tourists all year, a thorough response to heavy winter storms is vital. During the 2005–2006 storm season, the town received relatively little snow, but cold temperatures still presented a challenge.

“It's been light in terms of snowfall, but there's still icing conditions,” she said. “There's been no real savings in our winter budget.”

According to Conroy, the greatest challenges in the department's snow-removal plans have been “dealing with educating the public on the pre-treatment process and the use of less (or no) sand in our operations.”

Also, Conroy said that public works departments hold two powerful tools in fighting winter weather: adaptability and information. “Be flexible to treat each storm as needed—no two are ever alike,” she said. “Also, public education can go along way to help limit complaints/calls from residents.”