Wyoming Speaker Eric Barlow peered out the window of the house in Cheyenne where he stays during session. It was Sunday morning, March 14, and the streets were still unplowed as a record-breaking winter storm dumped more than 30 inches of snow on the capital and buffeted the area with winds in excess of 50 mph.
The phone rang.
It was Matt Obrecht, director of the Legislative Service Office. “Security found water raining down on the House floor and has placed trash cans to collect it,” he said. “Unfortunately, maintenance staff can’t get to the Capitol to address the problem.”
Barlow told him, “I’m three blocks away and will go check it out.”
Wyoming’s legislative chambers have beautiful stained-glass laylights in the ceilings. In the attic above the laylights are skylights that provide natural light during the day. At night, the chambers are illuminated by large lights, located in the attic, that require ventilation to avoid overheating. But the driving snow had penetrated louvered roof vents and snow was piling up in the attic and melting into the chambers.
The speaker was not about to let his newly renovated chamber be damaged by a snowstorm. He trudged the three blocks to the Capitol to assess the damage. To reach the chamber’s stained-glass laylights, you have to squeeze through several small spaces in the Capitol attic and walk out on a catwalk over the chambers. It was a mess but could be fixed if a couple people could climb into the attic and seal the vents until a permanent solution was devised. Barlow called Representative Barry Crago, who also stayed near the Capitol, and asked for help.
The project was far more complicated than they anticipated.
They navigated the tight attic spaces by crawling on their hands and knees and removed the ice, snow and water using small trash cans “as we couldn’t get bigger ones through,” Barlow said. If that’s not enough, they had to avoid standing on the laylight, where the snow was melting and dripping into the chamber.
Barlow and Crago would spend the next eight hours hauling 25 to 30 gallons of water in the form of ice and snow out of the attic above the House chamber.
While they were working, Senator Affie Ellis, who had snowshoed to the Capitol to finish some work, discovered the efforts to protect the chamber and joined in the rescue work.
Speaker Eric Barlow, above, crawling along a snow-filled ledge next to the stained-glass laylight over the House chamber.
Wyoming’s is a true citizen legislature, with session lasting a mere 40 days in odd-numbered years. The rest of the year, Barlow is a veterinarian and rancher in Gillette, in the northeast corner of the state about 245 miles north of the capital.
He and Crago were not afraid of hitching up their britches and doing the work necessary to protect their chamber, even if it meant crawling around in “100-year-old dust with a dry, dank smell,” Barlow said. “Everywhere you crawl has nails and screws that had been dropped through the decades.”
Glenn Conner, the only member of the maintenance staff who was able to get through the storm to the building on Sunday, brought plywood and tools to help board up the roof vents.
On Monday morning, Senate President Dan Dockstader (shown at right) discovered that the Senate’s attic also was full of snow. So, he and Barlow climbed into the Senate attic and cleared those vents too.
Spirit of the Lawmakers
By crawling in and out of tight spaces, carrying the snowpack out of the attic in small plastic garbage cans, these lawmakers saved their chambers from substantial water damage. They willingly set aside their titles and worked as a team to protect the people’s house.
Wendy Madsen, special projects manager for the Legislative Service Office, hopes to save the lawmakers another trip to the attic. “We are working,” she said, “with the state construction department and the project architect to determine changes in the ventilation system.”
Kae Warnock is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program.