By Bill Kirk
---- — On the 35th anniversary of the Blizzard of ’78, Massachusetts is bracing for another winter wallop.
A snowstorm is predicted to hit Massachusetts over the next couple of days, dropping at least a foot of snow in the area.
At press time, a blizzard watch was in effect from Friday morning through Saturday afternoon for much of eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. The National Weather Service and local weather guru Ryan Breton agree that the heaviest snow and gusty winds are expected Friday night into Saturday morning, with northeast winds up to 35 mph and with gusts to 55 mph. Visibilities could be as low as a quarter-mile during the worst of the storm.
The forecast is already riling people up, as they head to hardware stores for snow supplies. School officials have already re-scheduled weekend sporting events, and are mulling options for snow days. Public works directors are watching the forecasts as well, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
“We haven’t had a snowstorm in two years,” said Al Goldstein, manager at Rocky’s Hardware in North Andover, where customers were picking up shovels and ice melt. “The more they hype it, the busier it will get. It seems like it’s going to happen. We can only hope.”
While the storm may boost business for hardware stores, it will also wreak havoc on school schedules. Haverhill Athletic Director Tom O’Brien said Friday night’s basketball games have already been re-scheduled, with the boys now slated to play in Tewksbury tonight and the girls against Lawrence in Haverhill Monday night.
“Quite a few athletic directors in our league are doing this,” he said, noting that it’s easier to re-schedule the games now rather than later in the season.
Public works officials are carefully watching and listening to weather reports online, on the radio and on TV. Some say the closer it gets to the actual event, the more they will know. But they’ll be ready no matter what happens.
“We are monitoring the storm from as many sources as we can,” said Mike Stankovich, director of the Haverhill Public Works Department. “There are a lot of discrepancies with timing and intensity.”
He and other directors say they are getting trucks ready, making sure they are filled with salt, sand and fuel, while also ensuring that plow blades are on and functional.
Lawrence Public Works Director John Isensee said he started working for the city of Lawrence in February of 1978, the same month the storm hit.
What he remembers is that back then, snow was dumped directly into the Merrimack River, where it would flow away with the current. That practice has been outlawed due to environmental concerns, however. Now, the city uses a “snow farm,” at the intersection of Exeter and Osgood streets, which has limited capacity and space, according to Isensee.
The rest of it, he said, ends up on sidewalks around the city, restricting not only foot passage but vehicle traffic as well as the snow piles encroach on the roadway.
“The older streets are narrow, which constricts our abillity to get down these roads,” he said.
He added that the forecast could be wrong.
“Two weeks ago we geared up for 8 inches and we got nothing,” he said, adding that he’d know more as the day progressed today.
Prior to the Blizzard of ‘78, forecasts called for a storm to dump up to 14 to 16 inches of snow on Feb. 6.
Then the storm hit, and over a two-day period from Feb. 6-7 dropped nearly two feet of snow that grew into enormous drifts driven by hurricane-force winds. It took a week for things to begin to return to normal, as roads and highways were shut amid power outages and widespread deaths.
Charlie Foley, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said yesterday that there was a “winter storm watch” in effect from Thursday into Saturday. A ‘storm watch’ is called when there is a potential of more than six inches of snow. However, the NWS yesterday was looking at 1- to 2-feet of snow falling from Thursday to Saturday, “with some location getting higher amounts.”
He said this storm is different than the Blizzard of ‘78 because it doesn’t appear to be as big. It is similar, however, in that both are considered “northeasters,” meaning the wind will be coming off the water, bringing moisture to the cold air already in place.
Further, he said, there will be drifting and blowing, also similar to the Blizzard of ‘78.
But, he said, “It’s not of the same magnitude.”
Meanwhile, school officials are unsure what to do.
Methuen school superintendent Judith Scannell said her main concern is for the working families in the city who need to make daycare plans if school is canceled on Friday.
“I am keeping abreast of weather reports, today through tomorrow and will talk with the police chief, the DPW director, and facilities supervisor,” she said. “We are in constant communication.”
She said she planned on listening in on a conference call yesterday afternoon with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to discuss storm preparations.
“It’s all about the timing,” she said. “We are hearing three forecasts: One says it will start early Friday morning. Another says it’s 5 or 6 Friday night, and still another says it’s starting early Thursday evening. This is going to be a hard one for us.”
She said sometimes it’s easier to cancel school altogether than have an early release day, which can wreak havoc on daycare plans.
“I have to think, ‘Do I want the kids in school, and then worry about getting them home and dropping them off at an empty house?’” she said. “Methuen is a community of working parents. I need to make a decision so they can plan around their baby-sitting.”
Jim Scully, Haverhill school superintendent, said his phone lit up early yesterday afternoon, with texts and messages regarding the storm.
“My phone is going off and I said, ‘What’s going on? It’s only Wednesday,’” he recounted. “I don’t know what people are thinking.”
He added: “People ought to take a breath and relax. The forecast has been wrong before. Enjoy the blessings of New England.”
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