In Missoula Street Superintendent Brian Hensel's 10-year tenure, he's come across plenty of potholes, but this year's epidemic is unlike anything he's ever seen.
"We're just getting hammered," he says.
On a recent sunny day, the 41-year-old explains the chemistry and the politics behind potholes as two city employees plug craters on Arthur Avenue. The men in orange tamp down a still-steaming pile of black asphalt with a Makita plate compacter that, like a jackhammer, sends a visceral throb through the ground. Passersby crane their necks to take in the scene. A white-haired man in a beige sedan stops to tell the crew they missed a spot up the road.
"You can't please some people," says Hensel between pulls on his Camel Light cigarette and Diet Pepsi.
Hensel and the city of Missoula have taken a significant amount of heat this year from citizens expressing frustration about navigating around—and slamming into—potholes, seemingly more ubiquitous than the Subarus dodging them. Letters from irked community members dot editorial pages and reach the desks of municipal administrators who are fending off a flurry of claims filed by locals who want the city to pay for damages incurred by the pits.
Potholes form when water seeps through road surfaces via pores and cracks. As temperatures dip, that water freezes and expands leaving holes that resemble everything from a pockmark to a crater. This season, a wet winter converged with an unusually high number of Arctic air masses, or extreme cold snaps, creating an opportune environment for ruts to form in the road.
"Arctics average less than two per year," says National Weather Service Meteorologist Trent Smith. "We've had that happen seven times this winter."
Hensel's crew of 22 full-time employees worked round the clock through the winter, alternating between running snowplows and filling potholes. They used up to 19 tons of asphalt per day plugging holes on Russell and South streets alone.
"My overtime budget is trashed," Hensel says.
Patches and asphalt used to fill ruts are susceptible to moisture, meaning that during the winter and spring Hensel's crew often returns several times to re-patch.
With the arrival of drier conditions, they're beginning to get the upper hand. Even so, Hensel remains on call just about all of the time. Maybe it's the soda and steady stream of cigarettes talking, but he actually thrives on the pace. "I love my job," he says.