By Mark E. Vogler, John Toole and Mike LaBella
Whiteout conditions late Friday night prompted Methuen Department of Public Works Director Ray DiFiore to take a 90-minute break so he wouldn’t lose any men or equipment in the blinding snow.
“At 11 o’clock, we had to pull all the equipment in,” DiFiore recalled of the scariest moment of the storm that dropped more than two feet of snow on Methuen and several other communities in the Merrimack Valley and southern New Hampshire before winding down yesterday.
“The visibility was so bad. We had trucks running in tandem on the main thoroughfares and they ran the risk of running into each other,” he said.
DiFiore, a former DPW director in Lawrence before taking over the Methuen job, ranked the blizzard as the second worst he’s confronted during his four decade career.
“ ‘78 was No. 1 one. This is probably No. 2 because of the visibility, not being able to continue to plow because it was so bad, the wind and obviously the 28 inches we got. That’s a lot of snow in a short period of time,” DiFiore said.
“For me, the storm of ’78 was a little more difficult than this one. In ‘78, you’re dealing with other factors, cars and the roads. It took us a little longer to clean up. I remember not coming home for at least four days,” he said.
Still, this blizzard will go down in the weather books as historic for the northeast, particularly for the area. By the time it ended early yesterday afternoon, it had dropped 28 inches in Haverhill and Salem, N.H., according to Ryan Breton of AtkinsonWeather.com.
Snowfall totals for other communities provided by Breton included: Andover, 23 inches; Lawrence, 24 inches; Atkinson, 25 inches; Plaistow, 26 inches; Pelham, 24 inches; Derry, 21 inches; Londonderry, 22 inches; Hampstead 19 inches; and Sandown, 23 inches.
Despite high, gusting winds that generated huge drifts in parts, electric power for area communities remained mostly unaffected by the storm. As of 1:15 p.m. yesterday, there were 17 homes and businesses in Boxford still without power, as well as a handful throughout the rest of the area.
At least in the case of Methuen, DiFiore said he believes the lack of power outages in the city was influenced greatly by aggressive tree trimming conducted by National Grid and the city during the summer and fall months.
DiFiore said he also believes the entire region was also blessed by the timing of the storm and Gov. Deval Patrick’s travel ban that went into effect 4 p.m. Friday and was finally lifted at 4 p.m. yesterday.
“We had some very good luck,” DiFiore said. “This storm, as difficult as it was, fell on a very good time — Friday afternoon. It gave us the entire evening and into the morning and Saturday to clean it up. And we still have Sunday to continue the cleanup.”
Yesterday many public works crews were on the job and anticipating a long night ahead.
“We got everything pushed back and cleaned up,” Salem Public Works Director Rick Russell said. “We need more room.”
“Main roads are good,” was Russell’s assessment early yesterday afternoon. “We kept up with it to a point, but there’s just so much you can do.”
Russell said Salem had 28 inches of snow but drifts up to 5 feet in places such as Lawrence Road, Brady Avenue and North Policy Street.
Pelham did just fine, Selectmen Chairman William McDevitt said. “We appeared to have made it through successfully,” McDevitt said. “I hunkered down.”
Windham also made it through without major difficulties, according to Selectman Kathleen DiFruscia.
“No lost power and the streets are getting plowed,” she said.
DiFruscia said it looked like 2.5 to 3 feet of snow in the yard, with drifts of 4 or 5 feet around the patios overlooking Cobbetts Pond.
Colleen Kowalczyk echoed the comments of many as she walked around downtown Derry yesterday, “I’m not afraid of this,” Kowalczyk said. “This is New England. It comes every year. This is no big surprise.”
Kingston police Chief Donald Briggs Jr. said his department was prepared for the worst, but reported no storm-related problems, including accidents.
The department deployed two of its four Humvees for use as patrol vehicles and had its two 5-ton carriers, obtained as military surplus, ready to make it through the deep snow. A wrecker was also available to pull vehicles out, he said.
But the wrecker didn’t get much use, Briggs said.
“People weren’t on the roads,” he said. “People were prepared for this storm and they stayed home.”
Police in neighboring Newton also didn’t report any problems.
“We have escaped relatively well,” Officer Chris Maguire said.
Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini said about 40 homes lost power in Haverhill at various points during the storm. As of 1:17 p.m. on Saturday, National Grid reported no outages in Haverhill.
Fiorentini said an overwhelming number of residents complied with his request not to park on city streets, which helped in snow plowing operations.
“In most areas, there was nearly 100 percent compliance with almost no cars on the street,” Fiorentini said. “Where we had problems were areas where people don’t have telephone land lines and didn’t get my call, or don’t have parking.”
The mayor is asking residents not to shovel their snow onto the streets as it creates problems.
“Sidewalk plows are out and are working in tandem with plows,” he said.
In Methuen, the DPW collaborated with the police and fire departments on emergency calls and also to make sure that nurses and other medical staff who lived in town had a way to get to their jobs at Holy Family Hospital and Lawrence General Hospital, according DPW Director DiFiore.
“We assigned a plow and a front end loader to go on medical calls,” DiFiore said.
“In order to get nurses to their shifts at Holy Family or Lawrence General, we either brought them up there or made sure their streets were plowed out. This was a great effort between the police, fire and DPW,” he said.
Reporters Doug Ireland, and Brian Messenger contributed to this report.