CHAMPAIGN – It's only the second hour of John McKinney's 12-hour workday, and it's already a doozy.
Wind whips sheets of icy snow across the windows of the snowplow McKinney loops around the roads north of Interstate 74 in Champaign, his truck's giant shovel sending waves of white powder into the increasing drifts as he goes.
"I'll try not to hit a curb," he says apologetically to his passenger, "but I can't promise."
Meanwhile, the radio sends insistent notices: another compact buried on the side of the road, another car stuck in the middle of the street, blocking traffic.
"If they don't have to go out, don't," he says of passenger vehicles. "It makes our job harder, to watch out for them."
McKinney's truck is one of a fleet of Champaign Public Works vehicles challenging the roads during one of the worst storms in recent history. McKinney, 28, has worked here eight years, clearing snow in winters and maintaining sidewalks in summers.
His boss, Gup Kramer, has worked for Public Works for 23 years. This is the worst since Jan. 1, 1999, Kramer says. It reminds him of those whopper storms in '77.
"The problem is the heavy drifting. It looks like we haven't been there five minutes after we've plowed it," he says. "It's going to be a task, this storm."
For McKinney, just getting to Champaign from his home in Mahomet on Tuesday was a task.
"Three of us drove together and barely made it," he says.
McKinney left his wife, Katie, and their two daughters, Kayla, 2, and Kassie, 2 months, at home while his work shifts from its standard 8-hour-a-day schedule into overdrive.
He will work 12 hours today, from 11:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. He'll probably stay overnight in Champaign, sleeping in a nearby hotel like many of his colleagues before getting up to start another long shift today. "When there's something to do, it usually goes by quickly, when there's a lot of snow like this," he says.
But he'll miss Valentine's Day with his wife. He'll call, but he's going to have to make this up to her.
A 4-foot snowdrift shifts loose and spills itself on the hood of the truck. McKinney keeps his eyes on the road, on his shovel, on the steadily increasing patches of ice building up on the windshield.
"We've got a problem," he says, looking ahead. "Snow got in there, and it's not letting the defroster work."
He leans out of the truck, brushes off what powder he can reach, and continues driving.
His route takes him to main roads – Mattis and Prospect avenues, Interstate Drive. Smaller residential roads, he says, probably won't get much clearing until today. While the snow is still coming down, the priority is making sure emergency vehicles can get through.
Moving along Interstate Drive, McKinney spots a gray compact car, stuck in snow along the side of the road.
"We're not supposed to help them at all because of liability reasons, but we do what we can," he says.
He slows his vehicle, making a gentle half-circle of plowed snow a couple of feet from the buried car. The driver still can't move.
"Your bumper's buried. There's no way I can help you out," McKinney says.
He radios for help for the driver, then moves on, looping back 20 minutes later to make sure the car has gotten out of the drift. It has.
As McKinney drives around, he sees the stuck cars adding up. Drivers have abandoned some, while others wait with hazard lights flashing. Two people walk along the side of the road, and McKinney slows, opening his window to see if they need help.
They ask if he knows where they can find beer.
"I thought you were stuck or something," he tells them, then points toward Wal-Mart, but suggests it's too far to walk on a day like Tuesday.
McKinney also sees a man riding a bicycle. Twice.
"They shouldn't be out," he says. "Crazy, whoever it is."
As the wind gets worse, so does the view. Driving past Ashland Park, the white is blinding.
"I can't even see where I'm going," he says. "Straight, I guess."
After looping around North Prospect a couple of times, he needs to head back to the garage to get the ice out of his truck's vents. But he's worried. By the time he gets back to North Mattis in a few minutes, it'll be as if he was never there, though he plowed it less than an hour ago.
Over the radio, announcements come of plows getting stuck or forced to head back to the garage to de-ice. Kramer says city vehicles will keep plowing 24 hours a day until all of the streets are cleared. He asks people to keep their cars off the streets while the plows are working, to make their jobs easier.
As the wind whips snow over freshly plowed pavement, McKinney hopes they can keep up with it all.
"This is like a never-ending storm," he says. "My memory's not that good, but I don't remember another one this bad – and it's not over yet."