The potential for piles of snow in the higher elevations of East Tennessee from Superstorm Sandy kept road crews busy Tuesday. That includes Cocke County where the highway department maintains 700 miles of roads, many of which are in mountainous areas.
The grind to keep county roads safe during freezing weather lasts year-round as the Cocke County Highway Department constantly blasts and grinds stockpiles of limestone.
"We crush this rock and get what they call a 'dust.' We'll mix it with salt. The salt melts the ice and the dust, which is like sand, will mix in and give [drivers] traction," said Lonnie Ottinger with the Cocke County Highway Department.
Trucks and plows from Cocke County and the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) stood ready to deal with any trouble spots in the higher elevations. Snow-covered roads seemed like a distant threat at lower elevations in the county were any sign of frozen precipitation remained out of sight. But it only takes a short drive to observe the thin and sharp line between rain and snow.
Rain began transforming to snow at an elevation of around 1,600 feet in areas like the Grassy Fork community. Just a few hundred feet higher the snow becomes very deep. TDOT repeatedly plowed several inches of snow off Highway 32 at Chestnut Mountain. The elevation there is around 2,000 feet.
The roads remain warm enough that TDOT did not pre-treat any roads for ice. The snow that accumulates in the higher elevations is easy enough to clear. The main obstacles for road crews are the narrow winding routes and downed trees. Strong winds combined with wet heavy snow have caused several limbs and trees to fall onto mountain roads.
While none of these conditions are new for long-time employees at the Cocke County Highway Department, Ottinger admits they are not accustomed to dealing with these conditions so early in the year.
"It's really early. We grind dust all year long but we usually don't try to get anything ready [on spreader trucks] until about November," said Ottinger.
Nonetheless, the highway department kept grinding away Tuesday and remains prepared to dust a Sandy snow storm.
"We want to have everybody safe and get the job done as quick as we can," said Ottinger.