Southern Maine’s first snowstorm of the season arrived Monday just as the evening commute began, catching drivers off guard and sending hundreds of vehicles sliding off slippery roads.

Major highways and surface streets became so slick that commuters spent the start of their evening stuck in traffic. In Portland, drivers and police reported chaos on the streets.

“For such a small amount of snow, I have never seen such chaos in my 21 years as a police officer,” said Lt. Gary Hutcheson, who was the shift commander Monday night for Portland police.

A Metro bus slid off Cumberland Avenue, Portland police had to shut down High Street because it was so slippery, a Portland firetruck and three police cruisers were hit by sliding cars, and a 17-car pileup was reported at Park Avenue and High Street.

In Scarborough, police estimated that more than 200 cars were off the roads during the height of the storm.

It took a Scarborough ambulance, with one injured patient, more than an hour to reach Maine Medical Center in Portland from an accident on Cummings Road.

The National Weather Service in Gray said the fast-moving storm began to the east of Portland before moving west over southern and western Maine. The heavy band of snow started in Freeport around 3:15 p.m.

Bob Marine, a meteorologist with the weather service, compared the storm to a squall. He said it was generated by a gigantic storm that stalled out at sea.

It swept west, dropping 1 to 2 inches of snow from as far south as Biddeford to Bethel in the north. The storm lasted only an hour, but it wreaked havoc.

“It caught most drivers by surprise because conditions changed dramatically while they were at work,” said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. “Motorists drove to work with bare pavement. That changed.”

At 4:44 p.m., the Maine Turnpike Authority reduced the speed limit to 45 mph from Exit 32 in Biddeford to Exit 109 in Augusta.

Marine said cold temperatures — it was 27 degrees when the snow started to fall — and the fact that roads had not been treated with salt or sand beforehand made for slick driving conditions.

During the storm’s peak, Portland police were handling 50 traffic accidents throughout the city. But there were so many accidents, Hutcheson said, that police could not take all the reports. They advised motorists to swap information and contact their insurance companies.

“It was a horror show,” Hutcheson said. “Every hill coming off the downtown turned into nothing but a jumble of smashed cars.”

Hutcheson said Deering Avenue was shut down after a private ambulance slid into a car. Around the same time, a city plow truck slid into six cars at Deering Avenue and Grant Street.

“We were completely unprepared. We were expecting snow flurries, and instead we got a snowstorm,” Hutcheson said.

Nicole Clegg, a city spokeswoman, said police closed High Street because drivers were unable to brake safely on the street, which is steep below its intersection with Cumberland Avenue.

At 3:45 p.m., Portland dispatched nine salt and sand trucks to treat the city’s major arterials and hills, but the trucks couldn’t reach their destinations quickly because they got stuck in traffic jams, Clegg said. “The timing could not have been worse.”

Westbrook’s dispatch center said one officer got stuck in traffic on outer Congress Street in Portland. It took him more than two hours to get back to Westbrook.

The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office reported extremely slow driving conditions on major roads such as routes 302 and 25, but no injuries or major accidents.

Brunswick’s dispatch center said the storm caused more than 20 traffic accidents in that town, but no major injuries.

Clegg said the first storm of the winter, hitting at the start of the evening commute and dumping two inches of snow in an hour, made for treacherous driving.

“It was bumper-to-bumper traffic on the peninsula,” Clegg said. “We, like everyone else, depend on the weather reports, but in this case those reports were not very accurate.”

Marine said today’s weather is expected to be cloudy, with snow showers and some sleet possible.

 

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]