From Snowfall to Solutions: Revisiting the 2014 Indianapolis Snowstorm A Decade Later

January marks the tenth anniversary of one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences of my career.

It was a moment where I had to tap into every creative problem-solving tactic in my playbook and learn an invaluable lesson in resourcing.

In 2014, I served as the Chief of Staff for the Department of Public Works in Indianapolis. It was the start of a new year, and the city faced unprecedented record-breaking snowfall over three days. The 400-square-mile city, just 98 square miles smaller than Los Angeles, had the monumental task of ensuring over 7,000 miles of roadways were safe & passable for vehicular traffic.

As the weather took a harsh turn, the city and county declared red travel alerts, allowing only essential personnel to work. The extreme conditions required the Fire Department to transport me to the office, despite living only nine blocks away.

The “snowmageddon” tested the city’s resources, particularly its road salt supply. During an average winter, Indianapolis utilizes approximately 36,000 tons of magnesium chloride-treated road salt. But in the winter of 2013/2014, this figure skyrocketed to over 52,000 tons.

The strain on resources was apparent when our Administrator of Street Operations, Alan Bacon Sr.(rest easy, my friend), expressed his concern about reaching an uncomfortable level of available material. Our contracted supplier couldn’t guarantee delivery; it was a situation that echoed across the Midwest and through the Northeast as suppliers grappled to fulfill obligations to their customers.

What to do?

The first lesson in perseverance: “No” is not an acceptable answer

During my college days with Coach Bob Knight, I was responsible for obtaining game film of our opponents through our film exchange program. Working with Coach Knight taught me many lessons, one being never accepting no for an answer.

There was always a way to get my hands on the film — even if it meant taking a passenger plane or driving across the country to get a tape because FedEx wasn’t moving fast enough. (I once spent Thanksgiving night driving from Bloomington, Indiana to Youngstown, Ohio, and back again to get my hands on film to help us prepare for our upcoming game against the University of Notre Dame.)

Ever since, persistence and perseverance have been key pillars of my core values, making me relentless in my quest to find solutions, whether acquiring game film or road salt. I referred to these college day missions as I sought a way to solve our impending crisis.

Take action: securing salt by whatever means possible

I started making calls to all the major names in salt manufacturing: Cargill, Morton, North American, and Detroit Salt, all of whom had the same inventory challenges and were already struggling with meeting that demand. After a couple of hours into the operation, I found someone with salt in various stages of readiness, including 25,000 tons coming from Chile on a barge into the port of Baltimore. All I had to do was say go.

We gained access to a few thousand tons of material in Pennsylvania that we could get on a train to Indianapolis. But the $7M I spend in a few short hours on salt is not the most interesting part of this story.

When the salt arrived it was frozen in the train cars! The train traveled through the Midwest in open-topped hopper cars in -40-degree weather. Attempts to shake the salt free with a giant hydraulic hand proved fruitless. If that didn’t work, what else would?

Enter a new challenge: how to heat the salt so it can be used.

Remove the blinders to your available resources

I called Mark Miles, President of the Hulman Company & Indianapolis Motor Speedway (now Penske Entertainment Corp), asking if we could use his track dryers, thinking that jet engines must be able to put off enough heat to thaw this salt. Sounds like a plan, right?

Mark sent one of his experts to assess the situation, who expressed concern that the heater would be so concentrated that rather than thawing the material, it would put a hole in the train cars.

Another plan bites the dust. Next!

Refusing to give up, I continued to try to think of ideas when it suddenly hit me. The local power company has trainloads of coal that power their generators shipped in every day. How do they thaw the coal before it’s burned?

A few phone calls later, I was in touch with Indianapolis Power & Light (AES of Indiana), who agreed to give it a shot in their warming facility. The catch? We had to work around their receiving operation (i.e., the coal had to be delivered to power the service area during this intense weather).

Yet another bump in the road, but one we could surmount. Our first two train cars went over that night around midnight, and I received the call a couple of hours later that it worked. We could thaw the numerous train cars and refill our salt barns around the city and trucks on the road – without running out!

Indianapolis emerged as the only city in the region that did not run out of salt, proving that even when faced with seemingly impossible challenges, a solution is always available. And often, it’s in places you might not even think to look.

The Showpiece Difference

I don’t share this story ten years later to brag about our success or for a feel-good, happy ending. It’s not about what we accomplished but the steps taken to get there and how the situation evolved.

It’s a story that underpins what we do for clients at Showpiece Solutions and what we want to coach our clients on, which is developing the kind of problem-solving and critical thinking skills that allow you to win over every setback.

Sometimes, we get so siloed in our roles that we fail to see the vast network of resources available when a crisis arises. My desired takeaway is to remove the blinders of what resources are available outside your organization or team; sometimes, they exist in “obscure” places.

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