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Utahns cry `uncle' as snow piles up higher

At some point - when all the records have been broken and the amazement wears off - the snow isn't fun anymore.

Northern Utah has reached that point.You know the thrill is gone when cars are buried in canyon snow slides and snow-plow drivers work double shifts day and night. Also when garbage collection stops; the elderly and ill can't get out of their houses; and children wake up and groan instead of cheer.

"It's been really tough," a weary Tosh Kano said Friday morning as his Salt Lake County public works crews faced another, unexpected blast of rush-hour snow. "Our plows have been running all the time for two days now."

That's 71 plow drivers working 151/2-hour shifts in the daytime and 16 more working the nights.

The Friday morning commute was especially treacherous because the 2 to 4 inches of new snow fell on top of wet roads that had been turned to sheets of ice by an overnight low temperature of 16 degrees.

"Just another day in paradise," Utah Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Verdi White II said of the Wasatch Front's third consecutive commute on snow-covered roads.

However, with two days of practice, motorists appeared to be doing better Friday morning, White said.

By 9:30 Friday morning, troopers in Salt Lake County had responded to 25 slide-offs and about 12 accidents, none with serious injuries. Davis County had similar numbers. Wednesday, the UHP tallied more than 100 accidents in the two counties during rush hour alone.

"People are getting (to their destinations)," he said. "It's just very slow going."

LifeCare coordinator Kristi Johnson said her agency hasn't been able to keep up with all the calls for assistance from the elderly and disabled.

The nonprofit group has only three staff members available to handle snow removal. Friday, it faced a backlog of 254 people on its regular client list, plus 100 additional calls for help.

"Well, I just haven't been able to get out of my house," said Harriet Hewitt, a West Valley octogenarian. Though she doesn't drive, the two feet of snow on her driveway makes it difficult for relatives to visit and prevents her from getting the mail and putting out the garbage.

Hewitt said a small child "who couldn't have been more than 8" volunteered to shovel her snow but just couldn't manage it. "So I just stay in the house."

Johnson said others share Hewitt's plight. "We've received calls from people who've had trees fall down. One had a tree fall on the wheelchair ramp she used to carry her husband out."

Johnson put out a call for volunteers, saying the elderly and disabled need help right away.

Garbage collection crews Friday were calling for patience. Most of the routes in Salt Lake County were canceled Wednesday and have been a day or more off-schedule ever since.

"The trucks aren't able to reach the residences because of all the snow," said Russ Willardson, West Valley City's public works director. "Residents need to keep their garbage cans out of the roads until the weather will permit retrieving them."

Kano said Salt Lake County garbage collection crews are "trying to catch up." It all depends on the weather, he said.

"If another person asks me when it's going to quit, I'll scream," said William J. Alder, meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service's Salt Lake office. "What we're dealing with now is a cold and unstable air mass over the lake."

In other words, the infamous "lake effect," which accounted for the spotty nature of the snow Friday morning, is at work. Winds guide moisture over the Great Salt Lake much like a "water hose," Alder explained.

Places that escaped a dousing on Tuesday and Wednesday were hit on Thursday and Friday. For example, lake squalls dumped 16.5 inches of snow on Centerville and 14 inches on Kaysville and east Layton.

Alder said Bountiful qualifies as the big winner in the urban snow category for the week, getting as much as 28 inches from the first wave and another 11 inches from the second. "It was a double whammy for them," he said.

The mountains, of course, are in a class by themselves: world-class snow. In Little Cottonwood Canyon, for example, Snowbird has had 124.8 inches of snow this month, shattering its previous record of 113 inches in February 1994. Alta has had 81 inches of new snow just since Sunday.

"This has just been a phenomenal month," Alder said, and there's still one day left.

It won't take much snow over the next 24 hours for February 1998 to nudge April 1944 out of second place for total precipitation for one month. Friday morning, Alder's trusty rain gauge measured 4.89 inches, just shy of the 4.9 inches in April 1944. In first place - and likely to remain so - is the 7.04 inches of water during September 1982.

Kano is acutely aware of the water lurking in the snow.

"That's my big fear right now," Kano said. "The problem is, all this snow has come late in the year, so it's going to melt very quickly. It's not like the snow in November."

The problems will begin almost immediately as all the valley snow starts making its way into storm drains. Crews will have to rush to keep the drains and stream channels clear of debris, Kano said.

With spring just around the corner, the mountain snows will be coming down quickly as well, Kano said. "We're getting ready for that now."

And if you don't have enough to worry about, consider your vents.

Questar Gas is reminding homeowners to keep snow from burying exhaust and intake vents and from piling up on meters.

All natural gas appliances vent combustion by-products to the outside, and many of them get air from the outside, the company said. Clear vents will keep pilot lights burning and allow appliances to operate safely and efficiently.

Alder has little good news to offer weather watchers. "Next week looks unsettled again," he said.