Head of Evanston public works department leads snow cleanup efforts

Marshall Cohen

Suzette Robinson, once dubbed “Ice Princess” by past coworkers because of her ability to manage the effects of ice storms in Indianapolis, has emerged as Evanston’s “Snow Queen” in her role leading the city’s Public Works Department.

Robinson oversees a team of about 30 city employees that are responsible for snow and ice removal in Evanston after every snow event.

“After all the snow falls at once and once we get it away, it’s over,” Robinson said. “But those icing events take longer and mean our crews are working overtime.”

Snow cleanup is anything but an afterthought in Evanston, especially after February’s monster blizzard that dumped 20 inches of snow in the area.

Primarily due to that record-breaking “snowpocalypse,” Robinson estimated winter cleanup efforts cost the city $800,000 to $1 million last year.

During a “mild season,” cleanup costs may be low as $250,000, Robinson added. In a particularly severe season, the price tag can easily surpass $1 million.

Because of the cost, Evanston handles major snow events through a highly coordinated process, Robinson said.

The city contracts weather service Murray & Trettel, Inc. to provide meteorological forecasts and snowfall predictions for Evanston and the nearby region. The forecasts also include many other relevant statistics and estimates, such as expected wind speed and direction.

“We get an alert service from them, which provides a lot more detail than if you just watch the weather on television,” Robinson added.

When snow is in the forecast, the weather service communicates with Robinson’s department via email and fax with recommended guidelines for the city’s response. Alerts give a two-hour window for the start and ending times of the snowfall.

Robinson and her team then make decisions about how many employees are needed for the response and which pieces of machinery they will use.

One particular four-person crew works night shifts as needed during the winter season between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“Any issues that pop up in the middle of the night, we can respond and get ahead of any snow event to ensure that we’re ready for the next morning’s rush hour,” Robinson said.

While Evanston’s 75,000 residents are sleeping, the night crew is busy at work, plowing the nine major snow routes in the city.

Typically one primary driver controls a large plow and other workers drive smaller plows down the narrower streets, Robinson said.

The city enforces special parking regulations during snow events when at least two inches accumulate on the ground. Cars are banned from parking on snow routes between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. to let Robinson’s employees clear the roads.

“When compliance with the parking ban is strong, snow removal operations go off without a hitch, and we really appreciate that,” Robinson said. “It’s a huge difference between high compliance and low compliance.”

Residents who disobey the snow regulations are subject to a $50 fine and must also pay for towing and storage.

A Chicago native, Robinson started working for the Windy City at the age of 26. She went on to become the municipal airport director for Detroit and the manager of operations for Indianapolis, running one-third of snow operations in Marion County, Ind.

She decided to return to her hometown region six years ago and landed a city job position, working as Evanston’s superintendent of streets and sanitation. She was since promoted to lead the Department of Public Works in 2010.

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