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A 15-foot-tall pile of snow might seem unusual to most Oak Parkers and River Foresters. But it might be the new normal in coming weeks, following a near-record blizzard last week that dropped 20 inches of fluffy white stuff on the two communities.
Accompanied by flashes of lighting and booming thunder, the snowstorm was the third largest in history, trailing whiteouts in 1967 and 1999. All facets of village life were affected on Feb. 2 when the snow finally stopped falling — businesses were boarded, buses were stranded on Marion, and Oak Park and River Forest High School closed for an unprecedented two days in a row.
Snow started falling around 2 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 1, and didn't stop till about 11 a.m. the next day. Oak Park Village Manager Tom Barwin pulled an all-nighter at Public Works the night of the blizzard, helping to coordinate the cleanup while sneaking in a few hours' rest on a cot.
Village hall's outside snowplow help may have missed a few alleys here and there, he said, but nearly every roadway was cleared 24 hours after snow stopped falling, and Barwin believes village crews earned their paychecks.
"Honestly, these guys looked at it like their Super Bowl," he said. "They were geeked; they were fired up; they take pride in what they do, serving the public. They were operating on adrenaline for most of the storm, and they had to be sharp out there."
The "proof was in the pudding" for Barwin, as Oak Park's normal garbage collections resumed on Thursday, after Waste Management had to take Wednesday off to wait for the alleys to be cleared.
Oak Park Public Works Director John Wielebnicki said the village's snowplows were still out on Monday, touching up roads and alleys that might have been missed. Crews will continue working into the weekend, he said, clearing out miscellaneous sidewalks and parking lots across the community.
At the height of the blizzard, Oak Park had non-public works employees working the phones and even driving some plows to help battle the storm. Overall, Wielebnicki said, he was happy about the effort; he was received flowers by an anonymous Oak Parker who was pleased with the plowing.
"We weren't perfect," he said. "We missed a few alleys; we had some contractors in that weren't very familiar with the town, but I'd say by Friday night we were through everything."
The blizzard was a drain on village resources. Oak Park spent more than $100,000 on overtime and outside contractors to fight the snow; 200 tons of rock salt were dropped on village roads; and three Oak Park snowplows were damaged during the cleanup.
River Forest did not yet have estimates on how much the village spent to tackle the storm, but Administrator Eric Palm hoped to have those numbers calculated later this week. He, too, was satisfied with the village's efforts. It took River Forest 10 plows, but they had the village byways cleared by Friday, with no need for workers to come in over the weekend.
"Our guys are pretty tired," he said, adding, "We're looking for some sunshiney days and someone to turn the snow machine off."
The snowfall was crippled the villages on Wednesday, shutting down all three public school districts for two days straight. Oak Park Village Hall closed, and mail service was suspended. Carriers resumed on Feb. 3, but a spokesman urged residents to clear their walkways to ensure mail delivery.
"With a carrier, it's all about safety," said postal service spokesman Sean Hargagon. "If they don't feel safe going up to a certain spot, they don't have to make that delivery."
Many businesses and organizations were also buried by the blizzard. Everything from the West Cook YMCA, to the Park District of Oak Park, to the Lake Theatre, was shut down at some point.
Emilio Morrone got bored being trapped in his house on Wednesday. So he jumped into his four-wheel-drive Jeep and drove here from Lemont, rounding up a few employees to open Salerno's Pizza for dinner.
They didn't deliver, but people could come in for pickup, and Morrone said the phone was "ringing off the hook" from all the people stuck at home that day.
"We were glad to be open. It wasn't just for the money; it was seeing our customers. People in those crises do remember you," he said.
On Monday morning, Oak Park lifted its snow parking ban, signaling that Wielebnicki felt the roads were safe. Barwin hopes the snow will start to melt soon, though not too fast.
"Hopefully it'll be gradual, because we need a few days to recover before we go into our flood-fighting mode," he said.
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