Yesterday, as Baltimore's campaign to make its narrow side streets passable finally began in earnest, homely diggers and dozers became as important as the familiar snowplow.
Three days after the first flakes fell, the drifts still were high in neighborhoods, with cars nestled inside them like slumbering bears. Enter the backhoe, a buglike, 2-ton contraption with a bucket in front to scoop the drifts away -- 4 cubic yards at a time -- and monstrous back wheels that can pack snow nearly to the pavement in one pass.
"What these backhoe operators have to do is beat the snow down," said Sal Milio, a Department of Public Works manager who followed a backhoe crew through the side streets of Homeland yesterday. "Some of the streets are so small, with a plow we'd just plow [the cars] right in."
By yesterday afternoon, Public Works Director George G. Balog said the experiment was working, with about 25 percent of the city's side streets clear, along with virtually all main roads. He said he sent crews to take care of half of a list of 3,000 complaints citywide.
"We got the curveball with the snow [Tuesday]," he said.
Even under normal snow conditions, about half of Baltimore's side streets can't accommodate traditional plows, Mr. Balog said. Add to that the extraordinary height of the drifts left by this blizzard, and other methods became all the more necessary.
Front-end loaders, which can push snow into piles for carting away, have been put to the greatest use in downtown Baltimore, where drifts are being dumped at the former site of the Lafayette Courts housing project.
Counties around Baltimore have come up with similar techniques, though at a high cost. Smaller jurisdictions that don't own loaders to cart snow off streets have been forced to rent them, adding to the storm's price tag.
The machines aren't always practical, Mr. Milio said. They've been stuck quite a few times already, making it nec-essary for pickup trucks to follow with salt and shovels.
And not everyone whose street has been dealt with this way is happy. Some can't even tell that a machine of any kind has been by. "People are saying we didn't do the street," Mr. Balog said. "We did do it, but not down to bare pavement. Some are not satisfied with the finished product."
Of course, many streets hadn't been gotten to at all, even in areas first targeted by the city.
"It's terrible. You can't move any cars," Mildred Salmon of the 2800 block of Grantley Ave. said yesterday afternoon. "Usually they do get to it. They should have been here by now."
Others were happy. "We're as satisfied as we can be under the circumstances," said Beverly Jett, who said her street in the 5600 block of Wexford Road in Mount Washington had been gone over several times.
As he watched a grimy orange backhoe ease its way out of the 100 block of Hollen Road -- a narrow, dead-end street -- Mr. Milio felt a certain satisfaction. "Now it's all packed and you have a nice lane for a car to go through," he said.
"You're really not using the equipment as intended. I don't recall doing it before. But it's worked real well."