‘Everybody’s staying home,' Road crews say empty roads will make hard job a little easier

Last modified: Monday, February 17, 2014
SOUTHAMPTON — When reached on his cell phone at 12:30 p.m., Southampton Highway Superintendent Randall Kemp said he and the other seven department employees had just started plowing as two inches of snow blanketed the roads.

“I’m in a plow truck now, and I expect to be in a plow truck for a good amount of the rest of the day and into tomorrow,” he said.

Road crews in towns across the region kept busy Thursday morning, trying to stay ahead of a winter storm expected to drop up to 14 inches of snow over the next 24 hours — possibly accumulating as quickly as 1 to 2 inches per hour.

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The National Weather Service predicted snow would become heavy by midday Thursday, changing to sleet and freezing rain by late afternoon and evening.

Bill Simpson, a meteorologist at service headquarters in Taunton, said freezing rain would likely stay east of the Pioneer Valley in central and northeastern Massachusetts.

Still, the nature of the storm “is really hard to pinpoint,” he added. “It’s still coming!”

Area schools and municipal offices were closed Thursday and public meetings and cultural events were cancelled in advance of the weather. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning in effect through 7 a.m. Friday, predicting heavy snow and gusty winds would create hazardous travel conditions on area roads.

Kemp, who previously worked in the Highway Department, was promoted to superintendent on Jan. 21. While he has plowed through many storms before, he said heading the department during a big storm like this one is more nerve-wracking.

“You don’t want to call people in too early, because that costs money, and you don’t want to call them in too late, because that costs safety,” he said. He said he was out sanding the roads at 5 a.m.

Even before noon, the department faced a few problems. It was down three people because Kemp has not hired his replacement and two other employees are out on medical leave. A plow truck also broke down this morning, but their mechanic was able to get it up and running by the time it was needed to plow.

Preparing for the worst

The state Department of Transportation lowered the speed limit on the Massachusetts Turnpike to 40 miles per hour Thursday and tandem trucks were prohibited from traveling on the roadway.

In Easthampton, Mountain Road was closed at 5 a.m. Thursday until further notice, and the Municipal Building closed at noon.

Highway Superintendent James Kicza Jr. said at noon that the snow up until that point had been fairly light and he and his employees would start plowing soon. He expected to call in subcontractors to assist in snow removal.

They also pre-treated the roads and rented a loader truck to replace one that broke down in the last storm. “We’ll be here till the end,” he said.

Northampton Police Officer Steven Digiammo reported a low-key start to the storm during the morning rush hour Thursday, with no accidents reported and fewer cars on the roads.

“It’s been super quiet so far,” he said, “We’re hoping for the best.”

The city’s Locust Street Transfer Station was closed Thursday due to weather, as were municipal offices at City Hall.

Williamsburg Police Chief Denise Wickland said there had been no snow-related emergencies reported in her town Thursday morning, despite icy road conditions.

“It’s slippery but that’s to be expected,” she said. “The crews are working to keep up.”

In Amherst, Department of Public Works Director Guilford Mooring said he saw few vehicles on the road Thursday morning, but noticed a handful of people skiing on local roads.

Road crews were getting their trucks prepared to begin plowing by midday. “We’re all set and ready to go,” Mooring said.

Mooring said crews face the challenge of a predicted 24-hour snowstorm, though a brief expected lull in the early evening might allow employees to go home to rest and have dinner before resuming their plowing.

Municipal offices and public schools were closed in Amherst Thursday, with all “non-essential” employees given the day off. The Amherst Survival Center announced it would close at 1:30 p.m. Thursday instead of its usual extended hours.

In Hadley, Highway and Water Superintendent Michael Klimoski reported the normally heavily-trafficked Route 9 and side roads had few vehicles on them Thursday morning.

“Everybody’s abiding and staying home,” he said.

Klimoski said the expected long duration of the storm means crews will be working straight through Thursday and Friday, clearing roads and parking lots in town. Even so, Klimoski said he couldn’t be certain whether schools would be able to reopen Friday.