As a child growing up in Sykesville, Eddie Rapp always loved the snow. Today, that love is more than a passing fancy —it's a livelihood.
"When we don't have snowstorms, I'm not happy," Rapp said Friday as the first flakes of Winter Storm Jonas began to fall in Carroll. "If it doesn't snow, I don't get to go out and do my job. So for me, the more snow, the merrier."
Rapp, who lives in Hanover, Pa., has worked with the State Highway Administration since 2011, primarily replacing damaged road signs. When the weather gets rough, though, he hops into a snowplow to help keep the roads clear and drivers safe as one of about 30 staff plow drivers.
Friday afternoon, Rapp entered his plow at the SHA offices in Westminster to pretreat the roads with salt and check on the condition of his route. Each plow driver is given a separate specific route, with Rapp responsible solely for the stretch of Md. 27 from Main Street in Westminster to Main Street in Manchester. When the weather turns, Rapp drives this 8-mile stretch of road back and forth continuously as it snows, plowing away the newly fallen flakes with each pass.
Rapp will be working for the entirety of the blizzard, breaking only once the snow stops for good and all of the roads are cleared. The drivers sleep in their plows or on the couches in one of the salt barns —those large cone-shaped storage facilities strewn throughout the county — during the winter weather, separated from their homes until the job is done.
Rapp's plow is outfitted with pillows and blankets for the cold winter nights.
"It takes a special kind of person to do this kind of work," Rapp said. "It's going to be rather dangerous and scary for some people."
Rapp said the plow doesn't have much better control in the snow than the average vehicle, with the plow's weight the only advantage over a regular four-wheel drive automobile. He said he's been lucky to not be involved in any accidents so far, and it's important to remain cautious and in control.
"People get complacent or comfortable with what they do, and they forget about all of the dangers associated with the job," Rapp said. "An accident can happen in the blink of an eye."
Traffic soon slowed to a crawl just past the TownMall of Westminster during Rapp's first pass Friday. There had been an accident along the route before the snow had even started to stick, with the damaged car straddling both lanes of traffic.
As Rapp approached the scene, he rolled his window down to talk with SHA employees and Maryland State Police on site. He told them he thought he could squeeze by the car partially blocking the lane, with minimal shoulder space. Rapp slowed the vehicle to a crawl and turned the plow attached to the front away from the disabled car. With only inches of space separating the car and the plow, he slowly navigated the 25-ton vehicle past the disabled car and continued on his route.
Rapp said he doesn't often listen to music on the drive, and despite the limited path he's responsible for, doesn't let his mind wander either. He said focus is vital to staying safe and doing a good job.
"You see so much different stuff on each pass, that it doesn't feel like the same path," Rapp said. "It gets boring sometimes, but there are times where you don't know just what to expect."
Rapp said drivers work to lay down salt before the snow falls, and once the road is covered with a layer of snow, they lower their plows to start scraping it away. If the snow is falling at a rapid rate, the trucks will simply turn around at the end of each pass and go through the ride again. At safe speeds in the snow, he said the 16-mile round trip takes about an hour, accounting for traffic and visibility. If there's a break in the snow, drivers will make a stop either at headquarters or at one of the salt barns for a quick rest or food.
As he drove from Westminster to Manchester, a call came over the radio; it was another plow driver making plans for that evening's pizza order, for when they had a moment of downtime to grab a bite to eat. Rapp told the driver to make sure there was enough soda for all the drivers, then continued on his way.
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Rapp said he's not sure what his schedule will be for the weekend, with it changing depending on the quirks of the storm. He said he anticipates driving back and forth between Manchester and Westminster at least until Monday or Tuesday at the earliest.
"Each storm is different," Rapp said. "The wet, heavy snows are harder on the equipment. The dry snow is easier to get rid of, unless the wind's blowing, where drifting becomes an issue."
Public opinion on his job seems to be split 50/50 between those who are appreciative of his work keeping the roads passable and those who become agitated by the time it takes to keep things clear, he said.
"Sometimes I wish they would understand that it does take a bit of time to do what we need to do," Rapp said. "For the most part, though, the people that are local and live in the county here are appreciative and understand the work we do is important to keep everyone safe."