By Bill Kirk
---- — The non-stop snow plowing operations in cities and towns across the Merrimack Valley may have stopped on Sunday, but that didn’t give public works crews any time to rest.
All day yesterday and last night crews continued working to clear snow away from sidewalks, bus stops, street corners and fire hydrants — as an icy mix continued to fall throughout the day.
With area schools scheduled to reopen today after a four-day weekend, public works chiefs and highway departments were focused on making sure streets and sidewalks were safe for children and staff alike.
“The widening of roads will continue for the next day or two,” said Chris Cronin, acting public works director for Andover. “The sidewalks need to be plowed. We are going as fast as we can, and we are using all the equipment we’ve got, but it’s very, very slow going.”
The problem, he said, is that as they worked to get the snow off town streets, plow operators piled street corners higher and higher with mounds of snow. The sidewalk plows, meanwhile, are unable to break through that heavy, compacted snow. Instead, he said, the town has to send in backhoes and front-end loaders to knock down the street corners to expose the sidewalks.
“The problem isn’t the 20 inches of snow,” he said. “It’s the corners. It’s heavy and thick and our equipment has a problem going through it.”
Meanwhile, the town continues widening streets, using those same backhoes and loaders, while also clearing downtown parking areas so that local businesses can reopen and customers can return to shopping.
“This wasn’t the worst storm I’ve seen, but it’s definitely in the top three,” he said. “The extreme part is the cleanup afterwards.”
He estimated that the town has already spent about $500,000 and may spend another $100,000 on clean-up operations over the next day or two. The storm may clean out nearly half the town’s $1.25 million snow removal budget for this year, he said. “It’s a big hit,” he added.
If the state’s emergency declaration is approved by the federal government, cities and towns may be eligible for reimbursement of costs associated with the storm. He said he wouldn’t know the answer to that question for months. In the meantime, the city budget has to eat the costs.
Even with all the town’s efforts, roads were slick yesterday. About 10:45 a.m. yesterday, a rubbish removal truck negotiating a winding, steep section of Porter Road near Woburn Street, slid head-on into a town sanding truck as it was coming up the hill the other way.
The driver of the town sanding truck was injured and police are investigating the crash.
John Isensee, public works director in Lawrence, said his costs are likely to be extremely high as well, although he was still tallying up the cost yesterday.
“I’m going to have to warn the finance director,” he said, noting that he started at 7 a.m. Friday morning and was still on the job yesterday afternoon.
“I’m still here,” he said. “But we are winding down the operation each night.”
He said the focus of his crews over the next day or two will be to do corner clean-up and some street widening.
Safety is the big priority in Methuen, where public works crews were out in force over the last day or two “knocking down the corners” to reduce the size of snow piles at busy intersections, said public works chief Ray DiFiore.
“The visibility, when you pull up to these intersections, is extremely dangerous,” he said. “People should proceed with caution.”
He said front-end loaders are tamping down the corners and in some cases removing the snow so that drivers can see other vehicles and especially pedestrians.
Methuen School Superintendent Judith Scannell said her decision to cancel school yesterday focused on the city streets.
“It all comes down to the buses,” she said. “With the roads so narrow and the banks so high, it was in everyone’s best interest to delay one more day.”
She said she was driving around with the city’s facilities director looking at bus stops.
“I am going to check all the stops,” she said. “Those mounds need to be cut down. It’s all about safety. I don’t want the kids out on the streets. That’s why we needed another day.”
She praised city and school workers for doing a great job getting streets, sidewalks and school grounds ready for reopening today.
“This was the storm of all storms,” she said. “Everybody really chipped in. They did an exemplary job, and worked around the clock.”
Haverhill School Superintendent James Scully said school was also scheduled to reopen today. He said the drains on school building roofs were cleared, schoolyards were “down to bare pavement” and “we are making sure the intersections are all clear.”
“So far, so good,” he said.
North Andover Public Works Director Bruce Thibodeau said that after crews focused on getting the areas around schools cleared, he would be sending them home for a much-deserved night’s rest.
“The guys are really, really tired,” he said. “We are just finishing up around the schools and I’m trying to get everyone home by their regular time today.”
He said one of the senior foremen in the department worked 58 hours straight, taking short naps when he could and coming back on duty to continue working.
“This is the biggest storm in my five years on the job,” he said. “What was good about it is that there was no snow on the ground to start” as in years past, when big snow storms fall on top of existing snow pack, making it even more difficult to move the snow.
“It was pretty light snow,” he added. That said, it was a huge effort to keep roads opened and the snow plowed throughout the storm.
“There were two key things in this storm — that the superintendent calling school Friday and today so we could focus on snow removal, and the governor not allowing anyone to drive, so we were able to keep the roads open.”
He said in the past, cars on the road have made it tough for plows to get through. If a plow can’t get through, the snow builds up to a point that the smaller plows can’t push the snow. Once that happens, they have to give up and call larger plows or, in some cases, backhoes and front-end loaders to remove the blockage.
“The worst thing is losing a road,” he said. “Once you lose it, it takes a long time to get it open again.”
Work continues Public works officials request people to: -- Clear storm drains -- Clear fire hydrants -- Drive slowly and cautiously, especially where corners have built up with snow. -- Parents must be patient as buses may run slow today because they are using extra caution in getting around snow-clogged streets. -- School children need to stay off streets as much as possible and use caution at bus stops. -- Clear flat roofs with a snow rake. DO NOT USE SNOWBLOWERS ON ROOFS as this can cause fire and roof damage.