Thrust into Nemo's fangs

On front line of storm attack


The cab was hot. The defroster fan was on full blast. It had to be that way, or the windshield would have rapidly iced over. The truck’s flashing yellow lights reflected off flying snow. What we could see of the road ahead was white. Stop signs, mailboxes, cars pulled off the road and into driveways popped out of the swirling cloud ahead.

Dave Picozzi had pulled off the comparatively clear West Shore Road to cut through to Main Avenue. He was checking routes and, wherever he went, his plow was down.

It was 8:20 p.m. Friday. He was on the front line of the battle, and the front line was everywhere, and it had only just begun.

Nemo was showing his fangs.

Winds picked up. Gusts of more than 60 miles an hour would be recorded at Conimicut Point and snow was coming down at three inches an hour. By Saturday afternoon, 17 inches had been recorded at Green Airport but drifts of three and four feet were common.

In the thick of the storm, trees and wires were coming down at an alarming rate. In many instances, it was a matter of seconds between reports that yet another road was blocked. Dave Mobley, who was on dispatch, kept calm. He prioritized by rerouting plows to critical points. To complicate matters, a Buttonwoods water main broke a few hours before, diverting a crew and equipment that could have been fighting the storm.

The alarmed voice of Lori Trudell, who was coordinating dispatch from the offices behind McDermott Pool, came over the speakers.

“The pool roof just caved in.”

For an instant, there was stunned silence, then expletives. In 30 seconds, there was an explanation. Metal sheeting along the roofline had been torn free by the wind. By 8:30, vast sections of the city had already lost power. At the height of the storm, 4,700 Warwick customers were without power.

Power outages happened all around. With eerie green flashes, transformers flared, streetlights died and neighborhoods went dark. Plows had to be rerouted from a section of Warwick Neck when sparking wires crossed the road. Trees and limbs blocked access in other areas but Picozzi wasn’t going to send out crews, not in these conditions, and not until there was some light.

“We’re close to losing it,” Picozzi said a half-hour earlier.

Now, with the storm intensifying, he knew they would need to fall back. He was on the radio and his cell phone simultaneously, and still plowing in blinding conditions.

He issued commands to concentrate on major arteries and, if necessary, for plows to team up, with one following the other, to ensure emergency vehicles could get through.

That had already been a problem.

Earlier, a Rescue crew responding to a medical emergency on Park View was bogged down in heavy snow. Mobley immediately diverted a plow and bucket loader to that street. The rescue was on its way to the hospital within five minutes.

There would be more like that before dawn.

As he drove, Picozzi ran through a mental checklist: Main Avenue and Industrial Drive, exposed to the north by the expanse of Green Airport, is a notorious weak link in the city’s grid. Following the Blizzard of 1978, the National Guard, using heavy road equipment that was flown in, dug through 10-foot drifts to open the road.

With all the forecasters calling this “the Blizzard of 2013,” Picozzi had already contracted front-end loaders, two each from the D’Ambra and Cardi construction companies. One of the loaders was stationed at the Main Avenue “choke” point.

Picozzi wasn’t going to lose this critical connection.

The road was open, but there was no sign of a pay loader.

“He’s got to be here.”

The wind whistled and fine snowflakes filled the cab through the barely cracked passenger window. Outside this cocoon of dashboard lights and the hum of the muffled diesel engine, Nemo raged. Picozzi threw on his headlights. They were futile.

Then, up ahead, he saw it. Two lights mounted on the cab of the pay loader, looking like a landing aircraft, cast beams that stabbed through the snow. Picozzi was satisfied. He looked up as the two vehicles came alongside and then powered on.

He turned to his radio to check in with Scott Small. Small was in Cowesett. He sounded tentative. He was keeping up with the falling snow, but it was questionable whether he could stay on top of it. Picozzi told him to do the best he could.

“Keep the main roads open.” That was the fallback position. There would be no retreat beyond that.

Then, as if on cue, the logic of the directive became evident.

Mobley relayed the report of a fire on Arnold’s Neck. The house was fully engulfed. This was serious. At Apponaug, Four Corners and close by, Picozzi speeded up. He wanted details … Was the house in the vicinity of the Crow’s Nest? Was the road open? Was fire apparatus already on the scene? Reports from drivers in the area fed him precious information.

Only much later was it learned that the house, at 155 Arnold’s Neck Drive, was vacant and that the elderly man living there left earlier to weather the storm with a family member but the fire blistered the vinyl siding of the neighboring home and gutted the cottage overlooking Apponaug Cove.

Arnold’s Neck Drive was open. As he got to the hill above the Crows Nest, the flashing red lights of a fire truck shone ahead. A police cruiser, with snow above its wheels, was on the side of the road. The officer in a reflective yellow vest waved for him to stop. The officer opened the passenger door, sucking out the hot air.

“Can you plow this street?” he asked, pointing behind him.

The road was filled with snow. If it was opened, it could provide a second access to the fire. Picozzi swung out around the cruiser, lowered the plow and gunned it. Snow flew over the face of the plow and was whipped into a cloud. Then suddenly it was a total whiteout. What little could be seen of the path disappeared.

“It’s smoke,” Picozzi said coughing. It quickly filled the cab. The acrid smell was nauseating. He opened his window and peered out, inching the truck ahead. It was useless. He was driving blind.

He threw the truck in reverse. The tires grabbed. Slowly, he retreated. We opened the windows – snow and wind was better than smoke.

Additional fire trucks were on the way, their sirens shrill above the cry of the wind. Picozzi widened Arnold’s Neck and then pulled off the curb when the flashing lights of a pumper and a rescue came into view. Picozzi was relieved. He knew Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong would call his cell if he needed additional help. The chief wasn’t the one on the phone. Channel 10 News was looking for an update from Warwick. He said he would call back when there was a break. He found it 15 minutes later. More than once, Mayor Scott Avedisian was on the phone. The mayor was attending the Grow Smart America conference in Kansas City, addressing an awards dinner on Friday. He tried to get back ahead of the storm, but it was impossible. Hundreds of flights were cancelled. There was no way to beat Nemo.

“I want to show you something,” Picozzi said, cutting through Greenwood and picking up Post Road near New England Institute of Technology. It was difficult to see much of anything. The road was plowed but it was already starting to fill with drifts. It was dark. The power was down. Then there was the blue glow of the Interlink crossing the highway. The airport had power but none of its neighbors.

At the parking garage, a Bobcat cleared the garage entrance, pushing mounds of snow into the road. Picozzi was fuming. He lowered the plow and pushed it all back.

We continued.

“I must have missed it,” he said, explaining his abrupt u-turn in the vicinity of the Sheraton. On the return, the Bobcat was piling the snow at the curb. He didn’t need a reminder. Farther on, Picozzi pulled to the curb.

“There they are.”

In the white cast from the snow, several dozen “bucket” trucks with booms caked with snow appeared. They were parked and ready for National Grid crews. Even before Nemo unleashed his full fury, they were preparing for the challenge. Before the night was out, 180,000 National Grid customers statewide would lose electric power. By Saturday night, 40,000 had their power restored and the company said it hoped to have everyone back by Monday.

Picozzi returned by way of Main Avenue, joining West Shore Road and then headed for the city yard on Sandy Lane. He got as far as Moccasin Road. A car with four passengers was stopped on West Shore Road. Picozzi pulled up and rolled down his window. The driver doubted he could make it up Moccasin.

Picozzi cursed that they should know better than to be on the road. What were they doing out? Didn’t they know of the driving ban? But he turned and blasted ahead.

“Do you see ’em?” There were no following lights. Picozzi kept going before circling back on Cove Avenue. When he reached West Shore, the car was stuck and the passengers were standing around it. Picozzi climbed out of the cab and the four of them pushed the car free.

“It still smells like smoke,” he said as he climbed back in. The odor permeated the cab. Two minutes later, the door to the highway garage opened. Picozzi pulled in and headed for the office. Downed wires and trees still had a section of Warwick Neck isolated. There was a way in, but it was a private road and chained.

“We’re sending down bolt cutters,” he told the plow driver. In an instant they were on their way.

“That’s Teddy Wheeler’s, tell him we’ll pay for a new lock,” Picozzi said. Then he picked up the phone to call Wheeler himself.

If only cleaning up after Nemo would be as easy.


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