On the storm patrol
This Side Up
It was the wind that plow crews were up against Thursday night and into Friday. It blew a steady 25 with gusts of 40 and higher.
And it was cold, very cold, which was probably a good thing, for all 7.2 inches of snow were light and fluffy. We were getting just what had been forecast.
Our night had been unsettling. Storm windows and doors rattled. Plastic chairs were blown off the porch with a clatter. The radiators banged but, thankfully, kept working.
In the glow of the streetlights, snow swirled in waves that periodically obscured the driveway and the two cars we parked for what I thought was an easy escape. Not surprisingly, because it had happened during other northeasters, some sections of the yard were devoid of snow while drifts, like long fingers, reached diagonally across the property. Our tall pines, their dark forms silhouetted on this white canvas, swayed wildly.
As best I could see, nothing had come down, but, if the forecast was correct, we would get another three or four hours of this before the storm moved offshore. I wondered how the rest of Warwick was faring.
David Picozzi answered after several rings. He sounded tired.
“It’s tough,” he reported. “You get it cleared and half an hour later it’s like you never touched it.”
Otherwise, the night had gone relatively smoothly. Equipment breakdowns were minimal. Apart from a fire that was quickly extinguished, there weren’t any major emergencies.
We agreed to meet at the city yard at 6:30 for a survey of conditions. I have done this in other storms, hurricanes and blizzards, and learned that there’s no better place to learn what’s happening across the city than hanging out with the director of public works. It’s public works that’s called when downed trees block roads, snow makes roads impassable, people have to be rescued from rising waters (in front end loaders, as happened in Nemo last year on Arnold’s Neck) or firefighters need to reach a burning house in the midst of a blizzard.
I bundled up and the car came to life but, after several attempts, it was obvious I wasn’t going to get through the drift in front of me. Four-wheel drive is no match for three feet of snow, regardless of how light and fluffy it is.
“I’ll pick you up,” Dave said, when I reported my situation.
He had already finished what he called “his route” in a section of Buttonwoods with a road grader. He was now going to make an assessment of the rest of the city.
“I could have retired in May,” he said, once I’d gotten inside the black Chevy Tahoe, which was one of two bought by the city with FEMA funds.
“You know you love this,” I chided, and he just smiled.
Even with the drifting, the roads were amazingly clear when you could see them through the blowing snow. Dave had the radio microphone and his cell phone within easy reach. For the moment, this was the command center.
One of his first command calls was whether to postpone sanitation and recycling collections scheduled for that day. That would be problematic, as the schedule had already been advanced a day because of New Year’s Day. The decision was to delay the start of collections to 10:30. And, if people didn’t get their garbage out, it would stay frozen until the next collection…one benefit to freezing weather. The report came back that all but two of the sanitation and recycling trucks were running and it was still before 7 a.m.
We drove through Conimicut. There were isolated signs of life. A hooded man was behind a snow blower throwing a white plume 20 feet into the air. Another man was jogging in a coat and facemask down the middle of the road – perhaps keeping a New Year’s resolution.
We pulled to a stop in front of a house. Its drive was cleared down to the pavement and the cars swept of any vestiges of snow and looked to be ready to go. It was the home of Ted Coppage, who retired from Public Works last year.
“That’s what you do when you retire: clean the driveway,” said Dave.
We paused a moment, but Ted didn’t appear.
Church Avenue was open and we found a few cars on Warwick Avenue. Plows were clearing business lots.
Hoxsie Four Corners was open and we turned onto Airport Road, a tough spot to keep clear of drifts. There wasn’t any traffic and the drifts had been pushed back. At the Coronado Road overpass, a car ahead skated from side to side as it climbed the bridge over the tracks.
Dave was on the radio, diverting another crew to Jefferson Boulevard, which he knew would soon be coming to life. He asked for a truck to make a pass at the bridge and sand the road. Many of the city’s roads had been sanded early during the storm. Salt has little effect when temperatures dip to the single digits, Dave explained.
The Airport Connector was empty, as was the southbound lane on 95. Northbound traffic was starting to build, even at this early hour. It wasn’t moving quickly, however.
Dave put in a call to the mayor.
“It’s not bad, probably doing 45,” he reported.
He gave a synopsis of conditions. The mayor would be on the phone in another 20 minutes for another update. We were off the highway at Centerville Road and then winding along Hardig Road over to Cowesett. It was tight in some places but wide enough everywhere for an emergency vehicle.
Dave made radio checks with crews across the city, asking for updates. Reports had a consistent ring.
“How you holding up?” he asked of one driver.
“Exhausted,” was the reply.
“Not you! Your route! How’s that?”
“Have to go back again and again, but it’s open.”
That’s what Dave wanted to hear.
Wind-blown snow was filling roads in soon after they were plowed. It wasn’t going to get any easier, Dave advised. With the morning upon them, he said, people would be pulling their cars out onto the street while they cleared their driveways.
He was right. Even with the wind howling, there seemed to be this frantic press on some people to clean it all up. What was the rush?
We cut down into Arnold’s Neck and then back through Apponaug before returning to the city yard. Dave had calls to make to the news stations. The city was coming to life. The crews that had been on the job since Thursday afternoon were still out there. They had kept the roads open; the day was brightening; the storm was starting to abate; the crews had done it again. You could feel it, and the sense of accomplishment was great.