What It's Like To Be
What It's Like To Be

The Dirt Whisperer

Heavy Equipment Operators like Corey Straga are Savants of the Soil.

The Dirt Whisperer

It’s 1930, six ironworkers sit on a girder about 1,000 feet above the Manhattan streets and eat lunch. It’s an iconic photo meant to symbolize the skill, bravery and dedication of the men who built one of the world’s most enduring and famous structures – the Empire State Building. While the workers on the ground at the Empire State Building site didn’t get the publicity granted the high-flying girder walkers, the heavy equipment operators who cleared the site between 33rd and 34th streets on Fifth Avenue and anchored all 102 floors to the ground proved critical to the safety, stability, legacy and longevity of the skyscraper.

For most people unfamiliar with the construction of everything from homes to stores to office buildings, those large pieces of heavy equipment are simply the opening act to the main event of putting up the building.

“People don’t realize that clearing the land, preparing it for the building’s foundation and creating the proper grade and drainage are as important to construction as the building itself,” says Atlanta-based general contractor Trey Langford. “I’ve been at jobs where contractors tried to save money on site preparation and after the office complex was completed, employees there complained of constant flooding even after a light rain, collapsing asphalt in the parking lot and a parking garage that settled so much after only a year that huge cracks in the concrete walls developed.”

Why is site preparation – moving dirt – so important? Langford points to several key reasons, including clearing the land, giving construction workers full access to the site and shaping the land to match the survey. In addition, these heavy equipment operators, or “dirt whisperers,” complete foundational tasks such as setting out corner benchmarks, surveying ground and top levels, excavating to the approved depth, backfilling as needed, constructing wells and interconnecting trenches, making boundaries of the building and constructing protection embankments and drains.

For these “dirt whisperers,” their tools are much larger than hammers, saws, nail guns, wrenches and pliers. Their tools often weigh over 200,000 pounds with a height of more than 15 feet and the length over 35 feet with almost 1,000 horsepower at their disposal. The irony of watching these dirt whisperers is that even while working with such powerful equipment that has claws, buckets and forks, these defenders of the dirt can perform extremely delicate earth-moving operations that require the deft hand and sharp eyes of a surgeon.

The dirt devil

Corey Straga is a 31-year-old South Jersey heavy equipment operator who owns Big Dog Enterprises LLC. During his career as a heavy equipment operator and small business owner, he’s demolished an old swim club, re-graded the entire estate for a multi-million home, repaired a dam that broke during a flood, sculpted several high school athletic fields and even done beach replenishment in Delaware after Hurricane Sandy.

For the last year and a half, he’s been working on creating a 50-acre paintball field out of land covered with trees, scrub brush and wild grass in Franklin Township, which is in South Jersey about 20 miles southwest of Philadelphia.

For Corey, sculpting paintball fields from pristine land is the “Super Bowl” for a dirt whisperer.

“Molding land that’s been untouched by human hands is the ultimate challenge for a heavy equipment operator,” says California-based civil engineer Rich Petry. “The operator has to get that raw land up to grade and drain the water out of the ground so the area can be rolled and stay graded to the survey specs for decades.”

Petry also describes the skill involved in crafting a detention pond on a site. Detention ponds serve as important flood control features. They are usually dry except during or after rain or snow melt. Their purpose is to slow down water flow and hold it for a short period of time such as 24 hours. Urban areas rely on these structures to reduce peak runoff rates associated with storms, decreasing flood damage.

The detention pond that Corey built requires precise grading and carefully sloping so water flows properly. For most operators, technology using lasers to grade a site has made the job easier. Corey, after years of practice and learning, can often grade an entire construction site to grade within millimeters (about four-hundredths of an inch) without the laser.

In addition, Corey craned, lifted and positioned more than 30 sea container on the site to create a 12,000-square-foot castle that stands 28 feet high. The 50-acre park is slated to have 15 playing fields capable of accommodating a variety of game styles. The castle is the main attraction, but the facility features dozens of wood forts in addition to a clubhouse and pro shop built by hand from lumber harvested at the property.

Working in concert with the paintball field owner Paul Cuccinello, Corey uses all of the tools at his disposal, from a bulldozer to an excavator and a roller to a skid loader.

“It’s been a challenge to prepare the paintball site from virgin land,” admits Corey. “For people like me, water is the enemy. We use the machinery people see squeezing water out of the site, compacting good topsoil, creating swales and grade to let rainwater run off into the detention pond and enable these fields to dry out quickly after any rain.”

For Corey Straga, that’s something he’s been doing his whole life.

Born To Run - Machines

When he was five years old playing in his sandbox, Corey Straga surrounded himself with his favorite toys, which, in his case, are toy backhoes, bulldozers, and wheel excavators. From the time the sun rises until it drops below the lake horizon where he lives, Corey Straga played in the dirt and sand, moving soil around, building mounds, leveling hills and even creating swales to channel water.

“Since he was a little boy,” begins his mother Linda, a retired guidance counselor, “Corey has always loved playing in the dirt with earth-moving toys and then as he got older he learned to use the actual machines.”

When Corey was 14, a neighbor started training him how to use heavy equipment like dozers, backhoes, excavators and graders. Like a stunt pilot having total command of the plane, Corey could soon handle the bucket of a backhoe like a pro.

“It wasn’t long after that Corey actually was grading land for people even before he had a license to drive a car,” chuckles his mother Linda. “He was in great demand in our area.”

In the next decade, Corey took on projects in earth moving that only adults with years of experience with this heavy equipment would attempt. During high school, he dug wells, regraded residential properties, dug swales to control water flow and limit flooding at homes and businesses and even worked on major construction sites, carving retention ponds from the earth.

Making the grade

“Plenty of people claim they can operate heavy machinery on a job site,” says Trey Langford. “But doing it well takes a person with a special kind of skill. I’ve seen some of the masters pick up a quarter with an excavator.”

As people look to “outsource-proof” their jobs, heavy equipment operator schools continue to grow in popularity. As local environmental regulations become more demanding, “you need pros running that equipment for you,” admits civil engineer Rich Petry. “You can have a building completed per local specs and still not get a certificate of occupancy if the site itself isn’t on grade, the retention or detention pond isn’t perfect and site doesn’t match the survey.”

“There is no parcel of land anywhere that is immediately ready to build on,” says Corey. “You have to level up the land or slope for construction to build. A lot of factors go into grading the land of a given area such as the quality and type of the soil, erosion control, the density of the property and more.”

At 31 years old, Corey has already been living his dream. In his case, his dream does not include a climate-controlled office with an espresso machine and a copier that can collate and staple. Corey’s dream is most people’s nightmare. Bitter cold, oppressive humidity, mud and dirt flying everywhere, diesel fumes and heavy equipment that often has a mind of its own.

But for this “dirt whisperer,” dozers, dump trucks, backhoes, excavators, and wheel loaders are his tools of choice for an activity he has loved and excelled at since he was a child – transforming dirt into a work of art.

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EPILOGUE: A Primer On Heavy Equipment

Contrary to casual observation, the bulldozer isn’t the only tool in the arsenal of the heavy equipment operator when preparing a site for construction. The bulldozer is equipped with a metal bucket plate, this piece of heavy machinery is used to push, carry and condense any sort of loose material on site. The metal plate can also be used to loosen compacted materials and break apart walls or other stable structures. Used for a plethora of jobs, a skid-steer loader is a small engine-powered machine. In front of the operating cabin, there’s a mechanism that allows for the attachment of different types of tools.

From buckets to loaders, a skid loader can host different equipment and is also small enough to maneuver into tight areas of a site.

A backhoe is equipped with a backhoe in the back and a bucket in front, this is a multi-use machine. Similar to a tractor, it’s operated by a driver and has the ability to push materials, with the additional benefit of scooping. Due to its small profile and high maneuverability, the backhoe loader is commonly seen in urban environments.

After the bulldozer, the excavator is the heavy piece of machinery most familiar to people doing a drive-by past a site being prepped for construction.

The excavator is used to dig and crush material on a site and consists of a hydraulic crane-like boom with a metal shovel that has sharp prongs on the end. The driver’s cab is set on a rotating platform, making the machine more maneuverable. The machine is mobile due to an undercarriage consisting of heavy-duty tracks. Although sometimes called a “power shovel,” an excavator and a power shovel have their differences.

Other heavy equipment machines include the articulated loader for hauling materials in and out of the site, the road grader for building roads and a multi-terrain loader designed for rugged surfaces.

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Frank Racioppi
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