While classes may have been canceled during the polar vortex that Madison experienced at the end of January, there were plenty of people that still had to go to work. The many water mains that burst kept Madison Water Utility busy during the vortex.

MWU spokesperson Amy Barrilleaux said that they had seven water main breaks in one day during the vortex.

When Madison gets a cold snap, the frost line pushes into the soil and then the soil pushes down, putting pressure on the water mains. When it gets warm, the frost line suddenly moves back up through the soil and the soil shifts again, putting pressure on the mains, Barrilleaux said.

This kind of shift in pressure is damaging to mains, especially in Madison, where, according to Barrilleaux, about 300 of the 900 miles of main are old and need to be replaced. Barrilleaux said the vortex was a very “relentless” time for the crews that had to repair the mains.

“I know it was a really tiring stretch for those crews, seven main breaks in one day is a lot and so that meant they were working all night long in the coldest part of the day to fix those water mains,” Barrilleaux said. “But the only other option is to not fix them and then you’ve got people without water.”

To protect against the dangerous conditions, crews took frequent breaks, Barrilleaux said. Main breaks that would normally take four hours to repair took closer to six. Barrilleaux said though there were no injuries during the vortex, they had to take extra precautions because when crews repair breaks they get soaking wet, making the freezing temperatures all the more dangerous.

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MWU wasn’t the only city department that had to brave cold weather during the polar vortex, Madison Streets and Recycling continued regular trash collection throughout the polar vortex. A spokesperson from the department, Bryan Johnson, said though regular trash pickup is done with a “robot arm,” allowing workers to stay inside the truck, there are some areas of Madison that can only be collected by a worker hanging off the side of the truck. Johnson said crews managed exposure through frequent rotation, ensuring that no one was outside for more than 15 minutes.

Police officers working during the vortex were also very cautious of the cold. Captain of Traffic and Specialized Services, Brian Chaney Austin said officers were allowed to wear items that weren’t approved in their normal uniforms such as face masks. Chaney Austin added that officers assisted people that were outside during the vortex such as the homeless and metro transit riders. Chaney Austin said school cancellations did not mean people stayed home.

“Crime didn’t stop just because it was cold. As much as we tried to suspend any criminal behavior, we were still out there and we managed to get through it,” Chaney Austin said.

The polar vortex may be over but Madison is still experiencing plenty of extreme weather, receiving over 50 inches of snow this winter, according to the Wisconsin State Climatology Office. Johnson said Madison was having a fairly mild winter up until about six weeks ago when the snowfall drastically increased. This change in weather has made Madison Streets and Recycling very busy, with many workers having to work double time to plow and sand all of Madison’s streets.

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Despite the extreme weather, Madison Streets and Recycling were not caught off guard, according to Johnson, the department has two seasons — snow and preparing for snow. Johnson said that being prepared is essential because plowing is a job that has to get done.

“When it comes to snow and difficult weather, we’re basically the emergency services … Snow is like a really low-grade natural disaster,” Johnson said. “If we have to plow the city, we’re gonna plow the city.”

The time it takes to plow the city can be a source of tension for Madison residents, according to Johnson who said he gets a lot of emails from upset citizens regarding street conditions. Johnson is sympathetic, saying that dealing with the snow is “uniformly difficult.”

Johnson said some of these complaints come from a “gap in information” and because plows can’t start clearing the streets until the storm is over, many people get frustrated with how long it takes. Johnson said because this is more snow than we’ve had in the past few years, people need time to adjust to the conditions. He believes a more direct line of contact between streets and the public may increase understanding.

“I would love to get every alder and the mayor in all these plows just so they can see, this is what your neighborhoods are wrestling with and this is what we’re wrestling with at the same time just so our only interaction with it isn’t the complaints that you get via email,” Johnson said.

Chaney Austin said patience is key when it comes to navigating harsh weather, saying that every year people forget how to drive in snowy conditions, increasing the number of accidents. By February, most drivers have adjusted to winter weather, Chaney Austin said. But according to Barrilleaux, the frequency of these intense storms may require changes in protocol.

“We’re in an uncertain climate future right now, so we don’t know what to expect … This could become the new normal for a time and then we have a new-new normal,” Barrilleaux said. “We just try to make sure that we are prepared.”