The speed limit on Interstate 295 was lowered to 30 mph, the state’s largest shopping mall closed at noon, and a group of hardy Mainers organized a snowball fight in Portland as a powerful nor’easter hit the state Wednesday.

While snow blanketed the state, the Sagadahoc County town of Richmond got the most — 17.5 inches, according to the National Weather Service in Gray. Portland received 13 inches, and Brunswick got 16.

“It was a good old-fashioned nor’easter,” said John Cannon, a weather service meteorologist.

The snow started falling at daybreak and continued throughout the day. Strong gusts created clouds of snow that blinded drivers, sending dozens of cars off the roads. Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said there were no reported fatalities.

A tractor-trailer tipped onto its side Wednesday afternoon on I-95 in Pittsfield. The truck was scheduled to be removed from the highway today.

McCausland said state officials lowered the speed limit on I-295 north of Portland to 30 mph. “I don’t think I have ever seen the speed limit that low,” he said.

The Maine Turnpike speed limit was lowered to 45 mph throughout the day.

“The numbers of accidents were far less than what I would have anticipated,” McCausland said. “To me, that means drivers have got their winter driving skills back.” Scott Tompkins, a spokesman for the Maine Turnpike Authority, said there was only one significant crash reported: A tractor-trailer rear-ended a turnpike authority snow plow. He said there were no reports of injuries.

In Livermore, state Rep. Matt Peterson’s car spun into a utility pole, snapping the pole and leaving wires dangling. He was taken to a hospital as a precaution.

Public works crews in Portland and surrounding towns were out ahead of the storm Wednesday. In fact, the planning started as soon as the forecasts suggested a major snowstorm was on the way, said Michael Bobinsky, Portland’s director of public services.

Bobinsky said he and other managers kept in touch with forecasters and held a strategy session at midday Tuesday to prepare for what shaped up as more than a foot of snow and high winds.

He said his budget of nearly $1 million for winter operations is enough to cover about eight major storms a year, but Wednesday’s was “probably valued at two” storms.

The basic approach is to spread salt at major intersections and on troublesome hills, to prevent ice buildups from snow that might melt initially when it hits warm pavement, Bobinsky said. The salting started just after midnight with five trucks.

Starting at 5 a.m., another eight trucks spread salt on major roads such as Congress Street and Forest and Washington avenues. At 6 a.m., the snow started to fall and 40 or so plow drivers hit the streets with plans “to keep going as long as necessary,” Bobinsky said.

He said the process is easier when fewer people are on the streets, so the decision by many businesses not to open Wednesday helped his crews by giving them “unfettered access.”

Joe Colucci, a public works supervisor in South Portland, said his crews spread salt on major commuter routes just before the snow starts, then begin plowing once there’s 2 inches of snow on the streets.

He said the city’s 25 plows are supplemented in big storms by 10 contractors. They concentrate on keeping major roads clear, while breaking off to clear residential side streets every few hours. “We seem to get a lot of feedback — positive feedback” for the effort and results, he said.

Gorham got salt on major roads as the snow began to fall Wednesday morning, then started plowing.

“In a storm like this, it’s a challenge to just keep up with the snowfall,” said Robert Burns, the town’s public works director. “We’ve been battling it all day.”

In Portland, two people who had the day off used Twitter and Facebook to organize a snowball fight in Deering Oaks.

The Associated Press reported that about 40 people gathered on the park’s stone bridge at 3 p.m. and began tossing snowballs at each other.

Scott Collins and Jim Roberts of Portland hatched the idea and, thanks to the Internet, “it snowballed into a bigger event,” Collins said.

“We heard there was going to be a big snowstorm. We said, ‘Hey, we’re not working tomorrow so we should have a snowball fight.’ It’s sort of like being a kid again,” said Collins, who’s 27.

The Maine Mall in South Portland, the state’s largest retail shopping center with about 145 stores and vendors, closed at noon because its plow trucks could not keep pace with the storm. Fast-falling snow blocked parking lots and entrances to the mall.

“Even if we wanted to be open, people could not find a place to park,” said General Manager Craig Gorris.

He said that in a typical year, the mall closes once or twice because of bad weather.

Most town and state offices and schools shut down Wednesday. Portland City Hall was closed at 2 p.m.

Gov. Paul LePage did not send state workers home until later in the day. Asked if he planned to declare a state of emergency, LePage scoffed. “It’s Maine! It’s a winter day in Maine,” he said.

But eventually, he allowed all state workers except those in Aroostook County to leave early, at 3 p.m. “I’ve said business is a priority, but safety is also,” the governor said.

Winds that gusted to 48 mph in Portland and 50 mph in Brooklin knocked out electricity for more than 7,000 Central Maine Power Co. and Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. customers at the storm’s peak, officials said.

Wednesday night, CMP reported that just over 1,400 customers were without power, none in Cumberland County and only a handful in York County.

Cannon, the meteorologist, said today’s forecast calls for a high of 32 degrees with lots of sunshine. Another nor’easter could move into the region Tuesday, but Cannon said it’s too early to predict. 

The Associated Press and Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report. 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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