Winter Storm Jonas in January 2016 was a kind of turning point for Joshua Way, president of Toledo Lawns in Toledo, Ohio. While his company focused on landscaping until it entered the snow removal business in 2014, Jonas was the first time Toledo Lawns went to where the action was, becoming a storm chaser and thereby establishing a network that extends far beyond its Ohio base. Toledo Lawns began to follow Jonas as soon as it appeared on the company’s radar.
Based on its multi-state Jonas experience, Toledo Lawns decided to make storm chasing part of its winter repertoire. That means that the contacts the company made during Jonas were ready to join with Toledo Lawns in combating snow storms this past winter. Besides equipment, the Toledo Lawns story suggests, attitude is key to success in snow removal.
On Jan. 24, 2016, The Weather Channel ran a story headlined, “Winter Storm Jonas Rivals Biggest East Coast Snowstorms on Record.” The first snowstorm to bring two feet or more of snow to both Baltimore and New York City, Jonas was compared to Snowmaggedon/Snowpocalypse of 2010, the Blizzard of 1996 and several other sky dumps that hit the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast. Snowmaggedon/Snowpocalypse in early February 2010 left a swath of 20-plus inches, burying Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The 1996 event, which ran that Jan. 5-8, “paralyzed cities from Washington, D.C. to Boston for days,” according to The Weather Channel. It set a record 30.7 inches of snow in Philadelphia. The Weather Channel said Jonas’ snowfall totals topped out at 42 inches in parts of West Virginia.
Toledo Lawns was ready. A $1.5-million company of some 25 employees, Toledo Lawns does lawn care, lawn maintenance, landscape maintenance and snow and ice management. Way and two partners founded it in 2012 for something more to do but got serious fast, growing “very rapidly from a Chevy S-10 and a wood-side tilt trailer to our first brand-new Chevy 2500 pickup truck with an eight-inch straight-blade Boss plow, and a GMC 1500 with a Boss 7’6” sports duty plow, to now over 25 full and seasonal employees and a fleet of 11 trucks with plows and other heavy equipment.”
“Our first winter in the snow business was 2014 with just two trucks and a dream of being the best snow plow company around. What a dream; we only had the one 2500 and my partner’s GMC 1500,” Way says. “That year we took on a Lowe’s, several Huntington Banks, Key Banks, a school, and a few other accounts around the area including apartments. What did we know at the time about response time and having everything done by 7 a.m.? Nothing! That year we had a record snowfall in the area of over 80 inches accumulated that season. Why did we take on Lowe’s for a seasonal rate of $750 a month? We did. From that first snow season, we were hooked. Not sure how we did it, but we kept every single account that year and still provide service to many of those locations today.”
In the winter of 2015-16, “Toledo had a low year for snow and ice activity and we really didn’t have much going on.” Then came Jonas, promising lots of work for the company’s restless, reluctantly idle crew.
Way’s words tumble over each other as he tells of engaging that storm. Beating back Jonas was exhausting but exhilarating, and during the course of the battle, Toledo Lawns went nationwide, becoming part of the Jonas story.
To Toledo Lawns’ “10 guys, four trucks with plows, a four-wheeler, and other snow equipment on the way,” Jonas spelled opportunity, promising work, money and travel. Ten volunteers signed up for an eight-hour trip into very bad weather. Ohio was fine, but Pennsylvania proved challenging, reaching D.C. problematic.
“Just southwest of Pittsburgh we started getting into the heavy snow falling about an inch or two an hour through the mountains; we knew we didn’t have the option to stop and wait the storm out. We needed to get to Virginia as we were already getting calls from providers looking for help in the area,” Way recounts. “Then outside of the town of Crystal Springs, Pennsylvania, along the turnpike we came to a complete stop. This definitely was not good for many reasons, including the possibility of being stuck on the highway and not reaching our destination.”
After a half-hour wait, a State Police officer told them about three miles of traffic was stuck along this stretch of the turnpike, which was being “closed down for the remainder of the storm due to zero visibility, and that the snow plow trucks could not keep up with the amount of snowfall falling and the area they had to cover.” The state patrolman asked the Toledo Lawns convoy to help clear a lane or two to get cars “out of harm’s way.” Mission accomplished, and able to exit the turnpike itself, the convoy proceeded “through winding back roads and small towns alongside steep ravines, dangerous turns and many inches of snow accumulated. It was not uncommon to notice a state plow truck off the road or hanging over the edge. As the night continued we pushed on through, making our way through Maryland’s back roads to a moment of panic: Looking in the mirror, I watched the truck behind me get loose and (it) was sliding straight towards the edge of the cliff and just barely stopping before going far over the edge. We stopped and made sure everyone was OK and quickly hooked up our tow straps and pulled the truck out of the snow-filled ravine. We took a few minutes to regroup, but we knew again we didn’t have much time to sit around as snow was still falling and after traveling miles, Google said our destination was still four hours away. We continued to work our way out of the backwoods of Maryland and trying to get back to highway hoping conditions there would improve.”
Eventually, Toledo Lawns found its way back to the turnpike — in Maryland. But it was closed, so the convoy pulled into a post office parking lot and slept for a brief spell. Back on the pike, Toledo Lawns discovered its trucks were among the few on the road — so they plowed their way down the road. That morning, they also got a call from 13abc, a Toledo TV station whose personnel had seen Toledo Lawns post about its Jonas saga and wanted to do a Skype interview for the morning broadcast. “We were obviously very excited to be on the news, a part of a major story, and represent our hometown,” Way says.
After 16 hours, the convoy arrived in Virginia, but instead of being able to relax at a hotel, Toledo Lawns faced 24 inches of snowfall and another two feet of drifts, with clients begging for help because their contractors were stretched thin and underprepared. Their first challenge was a Home Depot serving up more than four feet of snow over 10 acres of parking lot. Clearing other commercial properties followed before Toledo Lawns’ weary workers got to a hotel for some rest and food. It was a brief respite, as “drained” local contractors left sites in poor condition and residents in the grip of cabin fever began to explore the scene prematurely. Chaos threatened.
“We were still trying to help clear major retailer parking lots when everyone was trying to pull into the stores to find a shovel, salt, or anything to remove snow,” Way says. “We were asked to sell our shovels for up to $100 by one gentleman. At one point, we had to get out and use shopping carts to block off areas so we could get the parking lots clear without hitting someone or possibly getting into heated argument. Tensions were high and many people didn’t know how to deal with driving, parking, or even walking in these conditions. We spent three days in Virginia going site to site helping locals dig out. On our fourth day, we were heading home when another provider called to ask if we could stop on our way and plow out about six more sites in Maryland — and their contractor was MIA.”
The experience built a market for Toledo Lawns, prompting it to revisit the area this March for Winter Storm Stella. On the move and networked, Toledo Lawns serviced clients in Richmond, Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Va., following a stop in Raleigh, N.C. where the convoy met only sleet and rain — and quickly moved on. Following two days of work in Virginia, the company treated its crew to two nights in family-sized rooms in a four-star Virginia Beach hotel.
“Chasing snowstorms is dangerous, stressful, but rewarding,” says Way. “We love what we do, and when we can’t play in the snow at home we take our toys and find snow to play in.”