By Bill Kirk
---- — METHUEN — Public Works Director Ray DiFiore woke up at 4:30 a.m. 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.
At around 5 a.m., the flakes started falling. And they didn’t stop until about midday. While dropping just a few inches, the snowstorm sheeted area roadways with ice, caused scores of accidents and left commuters frustrated and confused about why the roads weren’t salted and plowed.
In North Andover, public works Director Bruce Thibodeau said the storm happened at the worst possible time to wreak the most possible havoc.
“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 at 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.”
In Haverhill, cars hit utility poles, there was at least one bus accident, and cars were off the road all over the city.
“When I went out and saw them, the roads were fine. That was around 10:30 a.m,” Mayor James Fiorentini said.
He said he did get some complaints and emails, but nobody called him at home.
However, his Facebook page had about 30 comments from Haverhill residents lambasting the decision to have school even though the roads were unsafe.
“That is the superintendent’s decision,” Fiorentini said, referring to school Supt. James Scully. “But I’ve got to defend the superintendent on this.”
He said all the superintendents in the area “made the same decision: To have school this morning.”
Scully said he got up at 4 a.m., looked outside and didn’t see any snow. He looked at the weather reports, found out 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.”
The problem, he said, was that the water content in the snow was very high, so that after it hit the roads, “the minute cars hit it, it became slick. 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.
“And the kids got home safely today,” he said.
Fiorentini said complaints are now coming in to cities and towns across the region about the road conditions.
“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 Supt. Scully and the highway director “to see if there’s anything we can improve on. We always want to do better.”
Haverhill Public Works Director Mike Stankovich said the National Weather Service predictions of 3-7 inches were right on, but “the challenge was the timing. It began just as the commute was starting.”
He 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, he said, hit right as people were getting on the road to go to work.
“Then it intensified right at the commute,” he said.
He and Thibodeau of North Andover both said one of the unique factors of the storm was that the public works departments couldn’t pre-treat the roads with a salt mixture because it was too warm.
“Pre-treatment works best when the temperature is in the mid-20s,” Stankovich said. “It was 60 degrees on Monday.”
Even the state was caught short by the storm, as cars were off the road along Interstate 93 northbound from Route 125 to Route 213 in Methuen.
“Mother Nature and the commute fell at the same time today,” said Sara Lavoie, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “We started treating roads in (the Merrimack Valley region) between 3 and 4 a.m., and again at 8 a.m. We had 430 pieces of equipment out initially, and by 10 a.m. had 600 pieces.”
Nonetheless, Routes 114 and 125, both state roads, were in rough shape this morning, according to area motorists and police.
Route 114 in Middleton was shut for a short period of time when a delivery truck slid off the road and blocked the road.
By around noon, most major arteries were cleared and the temperature was rising into the upper 30s, insuring that the afternoon commute would be a vast improvement.