The snow depth in Milwaukee is now the deepest it's been in about 20 years — as snow shovelers with sore backs or shoulders can well attest. In most cities, it's up to the property owners to hire a plowing service. Or, they buy a snowblower or a good shovel, and do pavement clearing themselves. But West Allis recently joined the ranks of snowy North American cities that match older, or disabled, homeowners with volunteer shovelers.
West Allis has about 60,000 residents. Some people live in older, tightly-packed neighborhoods. Others live in areas developed after World War II, where the homes are more spread out.
It's in one of those newer neighborhoods where Nate Meyer was at work on a cold and windy night recently, pushing a snow shovel.
Meyer was clearing a 50-foot long driveway of about three inches of newly fallen snow. The snow looked heavy and wet, but Meyer, so to speak, brushed off that notion.
"Ah, it's actually not too bad tonight. I thought it was going to be worse,” Meyer says.
Meyer is one of about 40 West Allis residents who have volunteered for a new city program called Snow Angels. Unpaid shovelers are matched with homeowners who are 55 or older, permanently disabled or otherwise unable to shovel their sidewalks, driveways or alleys.
Meyer is an energetic 30-something who says, no, he has not lost his marbles, not completely.
"Maybe a little bit,” he says. “I was actually like, looking for a way to volunteer in my community, and I happened to see this posted on Facebook, and I'm like, 'Why not, I'll give it a shot, you know?' I'm younger, able to do the shoveling."
Meyer signed up to shovel two homes that night. One belongs to Jane Adams, who's wearing a cast on her left foot due to a recent surgery. Adams has a snow blower and says she normally does her own driveway. But not this winter, and she says her relatives and friends are out of the picture.
"I have family and friends, but they also have a lot of medical things going on right now. So, I was kind of in a bind, and when I saw the Snow Angels program, I thought, 'I'm going to sign up,'" Adams says.
She's not alone. West Allis reports 50 people quickly signed up for the program. And with demand for shovelers currently outpacing the supply, the city has stopped taking applications, for now.
Shoveling snow or doing other work on someone else's property can be tricky, since homeowners often want things done just so. But Adams praises her Snow Angel Nate Meyer.
"I'm like, he's meticulous, he doesn't leave piles. I mean, he does a perfect job,” she says.
West Allis says it modeled Snow Angels after similar programs in Pittsburgh, Denver and Canada.
West Allis Mayor Dan Devine says his community does have neighborhood associations and church groups that offer snow shoveling. But Devine says demand is typically unmet, and he wanted the city to do its part.
"We know that we have to salt, we have to plow. We have to pick up garbage. We have to recycle, and people are happy with those services. But when it goes to the extra steps, we did look at other cities offerings and just thought it would be a good idea for our population,” he says.
Devine says there's little cost to the city. And to reduce liability concerns, homeowners have to sign a waiver saying West Allis is not responsible for any injuries.
The mayor, who is pushing 50, notes he's not quite eligible for shoveling help from the Snow Angels program. "Not yet, not yet. I hope it's still in place when I am," he says.