As a severe winter storm bears down on southern New England, towns are preparing to deploy their snow removal crews and their fleets of snowplows. Chainsaws have also been sharpened because, in addition to up to a foot of snow, this storm is also expected to bring strong winds of up to 60 miles per hour, which could bring down trees and cause power outages.
Blizzard conditions are forecast only for Cape Cod, coastal Massachusetts and Block Island, with the rest of the area under a winter storm warning, but National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Dunham said the storm is expected to be powerful throughout the region.
“It’s going to turn into a very strong low pressure area as it passes by,” he said.
The storm is forecast to begin in the predawn hours Thursday and continue throughout the day, ending sometime in the early evening. The worst conditions will be between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.
“Travel is not going to be good, especially once you get into 9 a.m. to at least 3 or 4 in the afternoon,” Dunham said. “Frequently, visibility is down to a quarter mile at times, a lot of blowing and drifting snow, so I would not advise travel during the day tomorrow.”
Temperatures during the storm will be in the upper 20s, but when it moves out, they will plunge to dangerous lows.
“Once it goes by, it turns bitter cold again for Friday and Saturday,” Dunham said. “Friday’s high temperature is only in the lower teens and Saturday, highs in the lower teens with wind chill values 10 to 20 below zero.”
High winds could take down trees and power lines.
Tim Rondeau, National Grid spokesman said the utility is ready for the storm.
"We've been tracking it since early this week," he said.
Rondeau described the approaching storm as a "Type 3" event, which means that while there will be power outages, they are not expected to be extensive.
"We expect up to 9 percent of our customers may be impacted for up to 72 hours across Massachusetts and Rhode Island," he said. "That's a maximum of 50,000 customers."
National Grid has 44 of its own line crews and 84 contracted crews standing by. An additional 51 line crews will be available for Rhode Island and Massachusetts as needed. In Rhode there will also 63 crews specializing in downed wires and 55 tree crews to remove fallen trees and tree limbs.
"We're well-prepared and with our crew counts, we're confident we can get service restored in a safe and timely manner."" Rondeau said.
Westerly Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy said a parking ban will go into effect at 6 a.m. Thursday. Officials are prepared to open the Westerly Senior Center for use as an emergency shelter for those left without power, Kennedy said. In addition to the anticipated snow and wind, Kennedy said he is concerned about the extreme cold forecasted for the days immediately following the storm. Kennedy was in close contact with town staff including Paul Corina, director of public works, Police Chief Richard Silva, and Amy Grzybowski, emergency management director, throughout the day Wednesday. Town offices will be closed in Westerly on Thursday, officials announced on Wednesday afternoon.
In Westerly, preparations for the storm come as Water Department and Public Works employees have been responding to calls related to the extreme cold. Corina reported three water main breaks since Saturday. Each was repaired in the frigid conditions. Crews also respond, when possible, to water customers whose service into their house has frozen. The workers employ a mechanical thawing device, Corina said.
All of the town's snow plows and related equipment are ready for the storm. Corina said plow drivers reviewed their routes today to check on any existing problems that can be seen now, prior to the snow falling. There is plenty of sand and salt, Corina said.
Westerly Police Chief Richard Silva said officials are preparing for the worst and are asking residents to stay home. “The best advice would be that if you don't need to go out, especially during the peak of the storm, then stay home,” he said.
Across the region, town officials will focus on getting the snow off the roads before temperatures drop and it freezes solid, which would complicate any responses to residents experiencing medical or other emergencies.
Richmond Department of Public Works Director Scott Barber said the town would have 16 snow plows, seven of them outside contractors, on the road, but he added that getting some of the trucks started in the cold weather had been difficult. The cold also prevented the salt-sand mixture from melting the ice.
“It just can’t get it to melt, so don’t expect bare pavement, especially with the temperatures going to dive-bomb the way they are,” he warned. “I’m not so concerned about the snowfall amount. It’s the frigid temperatures after.”
In Charlestown, Emergency Management Agency Director Kevin Gallup said he was in full preparation mode.
“Checking on fuel, checking on batteries,” he said. “Everyone else is hoping for the best, and I’m trying to gear for the worst.”
And part of the worst-case scenario for Gallup is a resource that is missing for everyone in the region this year.
“We’re in our first winter without Benny’s,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem.”
Charlestown Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz said the town’s 10 snowplows were fueled up and ready.
“The equipment has been gone over, all the maintenance for all the trucks,” he said. “All the emergency generators have been tested and checked, chainsaws have been sharpened and checked to make sure they’re running in case we have downed limbs. We do have a command center at the police department. If necessary, we do now have a generator at the senior center, which can be used as a shelter.”
Hopkinton Town Manager William McGarry said all nine of the town’s snowplows were ready.
“All the equipment is all ready to go,” he said. “We keep it inside so they start them up and make sure they’re all set and ready to go, so when they need them, they’re ready.”
Hopkinton has kept a warming shelter open at the police station for the past week, and it will remain open until further notice.
“Without power, no heat,” McGarry said. “Our whole town, with the exception of that one mile in Hope Valley, is on private wells, so hopefully the wind gusts won’t be as bad as they predict.”
Richmond Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Arsenault said the town would probably open at least one shelter at the Senior Center.
“We’re talking about starting with the first shelter and then we’ll determine how the storm hits and we’ll open up more shelters if we have to.”
Arsenault said high winds and power outages are the bigger threat.
“That’s going to be the biggest challenge with this, because they are looking at pretty high wind gusts, 45 to 65 [miles per hour] so those are the ones that can catch us,” he said. “Usually, we can handle up to 50, but once you start getting 60 to 70 — you get those stray ones that are up to 70, you can take out enough trees and poles to cause havoc.”
Stankiewicz said he’s hoping none of the town’s equipment breaks down during the storm.
“That’s the killer for us, equipment breakdowns, ” he said. “Fatigue — we can bring the people back and let them sleep… It’s the equipment breakdown, because if it breaks down in the middle of the storm, you can’t get it fixed.”
In Stonington, Barbara McKrell, director of public works, said the town is ready with up-to-date equipment and fully-stocked materials.
The town has 14 plow routes and uses 12 large trucks and 2 medium-sized trucks that are operational and staffed, said McKrell. The town just had two new trucks delivered, she said.
The town had salt delivered this wee,k so the salt dome is filled and the roads have been pretreated, she said.
“We already have a lot of salt on the roads and so we don’t have to do as much pretreating of the roads as we normally would,” she said.
The town also uses Ice B’ Gone Magic, which melts the snow and creates a slushy base that insulates the pavement from the falling snow, she said.
“You build a layer so you don’t get the build-up of snow on the road,” McKrell said. “So if you look at the road and see it’s slushy, you want it to be slushy.”
The town also has new emergency equipment on hand.
“We have a trailer full of new chainsaws and everything we could possibly need for an emergency,” she said. “We make sure we keep things stocked and on hand for any emergency so that we’re always prepared.”
The biggest danger is high winds, which could down trees and cause power outages, she said.
Trees that fall on wires must be cleared by Eversource before the town can intervene, she said.
Acting First Selectman John Prue, designated for the position while First Selectman Rob Simmons is away, said he had a staff meeting with George Brennan, tactical operations director of the town’s emergency management center, and other key town officials Wednesday morning.
“Everyone’s shared concern is the potential for wind, knocking down trees, causing power outages,” he said.
No decisions had been made yet about a warming shelter, Prue said.
“It’s a very fluid weather forecast and we’re monitoring on the hour to see what is prudent to protect the town and its residents.”
Prue said that all information will be posted on Facebook pages for the town and the Stonington police, which will be cross-linked to the Stonington Community Forum Facebook page.
With the possibility of power outages, Stonington Police Capt. Todd Olson said the police department recommended residents set up enough provisions to maintain in their homes for 72 hours.
“Whether it’s food, charging phones, flashlights, things like that, we recommend residents be prepared” he said.
The town’s highway department and emergency services are well-prepared for the coming storm, said Emergency Management Director Gary Baron at 5:45 p.m. on Wednesday.
The biggest problem, along with 10 to 16 inches of heavy, wet snow expected, will be wind gusts from 30 to 50 miles per hour, which could result in a dangerous power-outage issue when combined with extremely low temperatures, he said.
The town has sent out Facebook messages and other communications advising residents to purchase food, medications, pet supplies and other necessities to shelter in place for three days.
Baron also said the town has advised people to charge their laptops and cell phones while power is available.
Baron said the town has a mutual aid agreement with Stonington if a warming shelter is needed but nothing had been planned as of yet.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Charles Steinhart V, chief of the North Stonington Volunteer Fire Company, said his crew was running through its storm preparations and would be fully staffed through the storm.
“Basically what we’re rechecking our equipment, which is always ready to go,” he said. “We’ll pull our saws out and check them, run our generators, and we’re staffing the fire house as of 5 a.m. with two full crews on, so we’ll have guys in the station around the clock.”
Staff writers Dale Faulkner and Catherine Hewitt contributed to this story.