EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 17, 2013

Angry parents: Why didn't city close schools during storm?

Tricky storm came later than expected, superintendent says

By Bill Kirk and Mike LaBella, Staff Writers
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — HAVERHILL — Parents are angry that the city did not cancel school yesterday due to the snow, but officials said there is a good reason why.

Mayor James Fiorentini’s Facebook page had about 30 comments yesterday from residents criticizing the decision to open schools.

“That is the superintendent’s decision,” Fiorentini said, referring to school chief James Scully, who decides whether or not to cancel school. “But I’ve got to defend the superintendent on this.”

Scully told The Eagle-Tribune he got up at 4 a.m. yesterday and looked outside, but didn’t see any snow, despite the earlier forecasts. He looked at the weather reports, reviewed the road conditions, talked to the city’s transportation staff, and made a decision to have school.

“I make the decision I think is the best,” he said. “Every other city and town in Massachusetts made the same decision: To have school. I think they all made the right decision.”

Scully said the problem was that the water content in the snow was very high and “the minute cars hit it, it became slick (on the roads). And that happened in half an hour. ... In one half hour, things turned to ice. None of us are snow gods. We take the information we have and try to make the right decision.”

He noted that “by 10 a.m., all the roads were black,” meaning the pavement was showing thanks to the work of plow drivers.

“And the kids got home safely today,” he said.

But there were problems during the morning commute, including a school bus crash at Broadway and Monument Street at 7:22 a.m. Police said a car hit a slippery section of road and went off the road into a utility pole, then slid into another car, which collided with the Whittier Regional High bus. The bus was stopped at a red light, police said.

The bus driver and a 15-year-old girl who is a Whittier student were taken to Merrimack Valley Hospital for treatment of non life-threatening injuries, police said.

During the morning commute, cars went off the road all over the city.

Fiorentini said complaints about the road conditions are coming in to officials in communities across the region.

“The timing of the storm was right about the time of the commute,” he said. He added, however, he plans on holding a meeting with Scully and the highway director “to see if there’s anything we can improve on. We always want to do better.”

Public Works Director Mike Stankovich said the National Weather Service predictions of 3 to 7 inches were accurate, but “the challenge was the timing. It began just as the commute was starting.”

Stankovich said when storms hit at 10 or 11 at night, the plows get out and clear the streets by the time the morning commute rolls around. Wednesday’s storm hit right as people were getting on the road to go to work, he said.

“Then it intensified right at the commute,” he said.

He said one of the unique factors of the storm was that local public works departments couldn’t pretreat the roads with a salt mixture because it was too warm before the storm.

“Pretreatment works best when the temperature is in the mid-20s,” Stankovich said. “It was 60 degrees on Monday.”

Several homes in the Corliss Hill Road area lost power yesterday morning after a vehicle skidding into a utility pole at the intersection of Corliss Hill Road and Whittier Road, toppling the pole and taking down power lines. A resident of Corliss Hill Road said he lost power shortly after 7 a.m. He said a woman in a 4-wheel drive Landrover SUV with New Hampshire plates struck the pole.

The man said power was restored to his home about 12:45 p.m. Police said that when they arrived at the scene, the driver was standing outside the vehicle, with power wires on the ground.

Methuen Public Works Director Ray DiFiore said he woke up at 4:30 a.m. yesterday and sat at his kitchen table staring out the window.

“I sat there for a half-hour and said, ‘OK, where is it? Did I miss it?’” he said yesterday afternoon.

He didn’t have to wait long. Around 5 a.m., the flakes started falling.

In North Andover, Public Works Director Bruce Thibodeau said the storm happened at the worst possible time.

“At 5 a.m., there wasn’t any snow,” he said. “At 5:25, we got calls from the Police Department about slippery spots.”

He sent salt trucks out around 6 a.m., and started plowing between 7 and 7:30 a.m.

“Our report said it wasn’t going to get bad until after 8 a.m.,” he said. “It came quicker than we thought.”

He added, “It was the worst possible storm that hit at the worst time with more snow than we thought.”