February 11, 2013

Digging deep: Snow removal could take weeks

Tall snowbanks line Portland streets, but clearing is under way and schools are open.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Most downtown streets and sidewalks should be cleared enough to navigate amid the snowbanks when thousands of workers return to their jobs Monday morning, just two days after a record-setting blizzard buried the city under nearly 32 inches of snow.

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Federal Spice owner and cook Eric Martin does his part by helping the Fire Department clear the hydrant in front of his Federal Street eatery on Monday.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer: Large snowflakes fell before a freezing rain as Portlanders make their way around the messy streets and sidewalks of intown Portland Monday Feb.11,2013 after a blizzard hit Maine this past weekend. This scene is in Monument Square toward Free st.

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City crews were expected to work well into Monday morning to make sure pathways were passable for drivers and pedestrians.

“We will do everything we possibly can to clear as much snow as we can by Monday morning,” city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said Sunday.

Portland public schools were confident that city crews would get the job done. After discussing a possible closure of all schools, officials decided late Sunday to hold classes Monday.

About two-thirds of the city’s roughly 7,000 students walk or are driven to school each day, placing an onus on district administrators to ensure that arterial sidewalks and roads are safe.

“Many sidewalks and major arterials have been cleared. We are still asking students to take extra care and spend as much time as they need to get to classes safely,” said Peter Eglington, the school district’s chief operating officer.

Westbrook schools also will be open Monday. In South Portland, Superintendent Suzanne Godin said she would decide by about 5 a.m. whether to cancel classes.

“Because all our schools are in neighborhoods, we have some problem spots” where snow hasn’t been cleared, Godin said.

The U.S. Postal Service said mail delivery, which had been suspended in New England over the weekend, will resume Monday wherever it’s safe to do so. Some roads, especially in rural areas, may not be passable. Officials asked customers to clear their mailboxes and walkways of snow and ice.

Things had not looked all that promising Sunday afternoon in Portland, where city police closed Franklin Street’s inbound lane to traffic – between Somerset Street and Cumberland Avenue – to allow dump trucks the space they needed to unload snow into the median strip.

Clegg said it was the first time in recent memory that the city dumped snow there. “We had so much snow we had to get creative,” she said.

Portland public works crews estimate it could take three weeks to fully clear the city’s 100 miles of sidewalks.

Snowbanks several feet high lined much of Congress Street late Sunday afternoon. The streets bustled with city workers bearing shovels and driving front-end loaders, skid-steer tractors and dump trucks to haul away immeasurable tons of the fresh powder. At its peak, the storm drew 110 city workers and a fleet of 44 plow trucks.

A team of a dozen sidewalk tractors, three massive snow-blowing front-end loaders and 27 dump trucks worked to clear the steep embankments on nearly every downtown street corner.

On Commercial Street, where plows pushed mounds of snow into the center of the road, a caravan of dump trucks lined the street, waiting to take the snow away.

Downtown, a lot at Preble and Kennebec streets was set to receive mountains of snow. A location near the Portland International Jetport will receive truckloads hauled from mainland neighborhoods.

The city banned street parking overnight on Friday and Saturday. It towed 47 vehicles Friday but only 25 on Saturday, a record low for a citywide ban, Clegg said.

Sunday night, a limited parking ban was in place, barring residents from parking in the downtown area bordered by Commercial Street, State Street, Cumberland Avenue and Franklin Street.

The snowstorm, which started Friday morning and ended Saturday afternoon, brought heavy snow whipped by gusting winds – a dangerous mix that created blizzard conditions.

Between 2 and 3 feet of snow fell in the region. The biggest total, in Gorham, was 35.5 inches.

Portland received 31.9 inches, measured at the Portland jetport. That was the highest amount of snow to fall in Portland over a two-day period since 1979, according to the National Weather Service in Gray.

Gusting winds reached 77 mph at 2 a.m. in Matinicus. In Portland, gusts surpassed 50 mph.

The storm proved both deadly and challenging for emergency responders.

The Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office said Gerald Crommett, 75, of Passadumkeag died after he became disoriented Saturday morning during the storm and drove his truck into the Penobscot River.

Police located his truck and recovered Crommett’s body from the river Sunday morning.

“It was very much a storm-related death,” said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine State Police, one of several agencies that searched for Crommett after a silver alert was issued Saturday.

Windham firefighters faced a different challenge early Saturday as blizzard conditions hampered their efforts to fight a garage fire at 81 Swett Road. Fire Chief Charlie Hammond said the fire was likely caused by a faulty generator being used to heat the home of David Clark after he lost power.

“When we arrived, the winds were blowing against us. My men were spraying water at the fire and it was coming back into their face,” Hammond said.

Clark’s home was declared a total loss after the fire flared up Saturday night and again Sunday morning. Those flareups destroyed the home’s roof and walls, which were attached to the garage.

In Portland on Sunday morning, the operator of a tractor-trailer truck backed into what he thought was a snowbank, but which turned out to be a guardrail. The impact ruptured the truck’s fuel tank, spilling about 250 gallons of diesel fuel onto the parking lot outside a Barber Foods warehouse off Milliken Road.

“We were able to contain most of the spill,” said Deputy Fire Chief Bill Flynn.

Meanwhile, firefighters had to take a few minutes to shovel out a hydrant that was buried in snow while fighting a fire Sunday morning on Burnside Avenue. That fire left one woman seriously injured.

Flynn said there was plenty of water in the fire trucks when they arrived, but the incident underscored how snowstorms of this magnitude can stress a fire department’s resources. He said the fire department is responsible for making sure it has access to more than 1,200 fire hydrants citywide.

Cloudless skies and sunshine drew many people out of homes Sunday to assess the damage, dig out and roam the streets that, in 36 blustery hours, were transformed into a labyrinth of narrow walkways and slush-covered asphalt.

One of Portland’s three front-end loaders – with a churning diesel snowblower large enough to devour a small Volkswagen – gnawed easily at a snowdrift Sunday afternoon. From the stoop of his gift shop, Brewster Harding watched the noisy machinery with fascination.

“That thing chews through that (snow) like butter,” said Harding, 70, who owns Shipwreck and Cargo on Commercial Street. Several years ago, plows used to push snow to the curb, blocking the handful of coveted parking spots in front of his store, Harding said.

“It’s key for potential customers to feel that parking is cleaned up and easy to find,” he said.

Rick Hinkle of ELC Managment Inc., which maintains eight large commercial properties downtown, said he and his crew gave up on shoveling Saturday when the snow was coming in sideways, accumulating too quickly to combat.

“We like to work smarter, not harder,” said Hinkle, 52, who remembers the Northeast blizzard of 1978, when snowbanks were more than 12 feet high. “This is mild compared to that one.”

At least one downtown business was facing deeper problems. High winds blew out a second-floor window at Longfellow Books in Monument Square sometime after 5 p.m. Saturday, causing pipes to freeze and the sprinkler system to soak much of the store’s contents. Nearly half of the 30,000 titles in stock were damaged, said store owner Chris Bowe.

Other shop owners were digging out for the first time Sunday.

Tim McNamara, manager at Bar of Chocolate Cafe, hustled to clear the doorway to the Wharf Street business, panting in the cold as he flung snow toward an embankment. Plows seemed to miss the cobblestone-paved thoroughfare, or at least portions of it, leaving pedestrians to slosh through what remained.

Meteorologists said another stint of precipitation is headed into the region Monday, when a half-inch mix of snow and rain is expected to begin falling about midday. The snow will turn to rain as temperatures reach into the 40s by Monday evening, said Chris Legro, a meteorologist at the weather service in Gray.

“It’s not going to last very long,” Legro said, “Then things dry out in the evening and overnight into Tuesday.”

The deep snow created some unexpected dangers. Andrew E. Smith, director of Environmental and Occupational Health Programs for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, warned residents who will be digging out their vehicles to be mindful of blocked tailpipes, which can lead to a deadly buildup of carbon monoxide inside the vehicle if it is left running. The call for caution came after two people in Boston died Saturday and two others were injured by the accumulating gas.

Not all of post-blizzard activity was glum shoveling and damage assessment.

Along the Eastern Promenade, a wall of snow obscured the view of the water from the road. But inside, the park and beach below bustled with the sound of plastic sliding on snowpack.

Megan Buckley, 26, of South Portland and her boyfriend Jeff Peterson, 27, who was visiting from Minneapolis, were among about 15 people sledding by the playground – one of the few parts of the hill that hadn’t been blown bare.

Peterson, who’s originally from North Dakota, said he wasn’t overwhelmed by the storm.

“This is a decent blizzard, I guess, for you guys,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bryan Graf, who teaches photography at the Maine College of Art, snapped shots of a block of ice sitting on the shore.

“They look like miniature glaciers,” Graf, 30, said of the frozen fragments that covered some sections of the shoreline.

At Pineland Farms Outdoor Center in New Gloucester, cross-country skiers greeted the fresh snow with enthusiasm.

About 1,100 skiers and snowshoers were on the trails at the peak, even though the warmer temperatures softened the snow, making it a bit sticky, said Matt Sabasteanski, outdoor recreation director.

It was hard to find a spot in the parking lot, and every piece of rental equipment was out, he said.

“The volume of skiers was fairly huge,” Sabasteanski said.

Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said it would be safe to say that a person could ride just about anywhere in the state.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Meyers said. “This will really open things up and get people riding again.”

At Sunday River ski resort in Newry, more than 600 acres of trails were open for downhill skiing.

“Things were pretty amazing today,” Darcy Morse, the resort’s spokeswoman, said Sunday night. “We gave our snowmakers the day off.”

Staff writers Dennis Hoey, Bob Keyes, Leslie Bridgers and Beth Quimby contributed to this report.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@mainetoday.com

Staff writer Bob Keyes contributed to this report.

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Additional Photos

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A section of Franklin Street in Portland is closed off Sunday as trucks bring in snow from around the city to be deposited in the median after a weekend storm brought 31.9 inches of snow to the city.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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Portland firefighter Eric Weeks shovels out a fire hydrant on West Commercial Street in Portland on Sunday.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Mike Carey blows the snow off his driveway on Oakdale Street in Portland during the cleanup from a blizzard on Sunday.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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A large snowdrift rests on the top of the car of Joshua Hamel as he cleans off his car in Portland on Sunday, the day after Blizzard Nemo.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

Bert Johnson
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Bert Johnson takes a break while clearing snow from a bus-stop bench outside the apartment complex where he lives.

The Associated Press

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A truck dumps a load of snow in a lot at Preble and Kennebec streets in Portland on Sunday during the cleanup in the aftermath of the weekend blizzard that set a record of 31.9 inches of snowfall in the city.

Tim GreenwayStaff Photographer

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Pat Dunn of Pine Point shovels out mailboxes at the end of Pine Street in Pine Point on Sunday.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Brock Hieger of Saco sinks up to his waist in snow as he walks up a sliding hill at Saco Middle School on Sunday. Heiger was helping his 2-year-old son Gavin, right, when Gavin decided to walk on his own.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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John Morrill Read of Saco shovels his way through the deep snow in an effort to get his vehicle out of his garage on School Street in Saco on Sunday.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Chris Dyer, left, and Michael Demers of Saco make their way down School Street with shovels in hand as they look for driveways to shovel Sunday.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Kevin McPherson of Pleasant View Drive in Saco shovels off his roof on Sunday.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Liam Bridgham of Scarborough skis with his mother, Kim, Sunday at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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Jerry Hunter shovels his walkway in Portland on Sunday after a weekend storm brought 31.9 inches of snow to the city.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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Charlie Creswell, 4, sleds down a hill created by the snowplows on Fessenden Street in Portland on Sunday.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Chris and Kim Nichols of Scarborough cross-country ski along the Eastern Trail in Scarborough on Sunday. Chris is pulling his 9-month-old daughter, Lily, in a tow on skis.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Chris Massey of Cornish operates a loader on Sunday at a shopping plaza in Falmouth, while removing snow for Shaw Brothers Construction.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

  


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