Digging out


Early Friday afternoon, dispatchers, Public Works crews and independent vendors were on standby as Nemo descended upon Cranston. By the time the blizzard was through, roughly two feet of snow had fallen, and crews would stay out overnight and through the day Saturday, returning for cleanup on Sunday and into the week.

While final costs to the winter storm have not yet been calculated, it is clear that roadways aren’t the only things that Nemo wiped out.

“Right now we’re just starting to do the totaling of these costs, but we definitely blew our snow budget line item,” said Mayor Allan Fung.

Cranston started the year with a snow removal budget of $580,000. Prior to Friday’s blizzard, more than half of that was wiped out – leaving just $230,000 when snowflakes started falling last week. Even with a contingency fund of $260,000, it is likely that Nemo will have a significant impact on the city’s budget.

The overtime costs alone will be considerable. Before the first flake fell, emergency personnel, including the administration, Police and Fire, met to discuss plans for the storm and set up an Emergency Operations Center. Dispatchers were called in for 1 p.m., and vendors were available starting at 2 p.m. The city had 30 vehicles on the road, with another 120 vendors.

“Once the storm really started going in the afternoon, we had the crews out there to the best extent possible,” Fung said.

Those crews stayed out through the night Friday and through the day Saturday, at which time the city began to clear side roads. Many crews were sent home Saturday night around 9 p.m., leaving only several trucks on the road.

“At some point, exhaustion starts coming in,” Fung said of his reasoning for giving workers a break.

At 7 a.m. Sunday, crews were back out on the roads. Plowing continued on Monday and Tuesday, though Monday’s rain added an unexpected twist, as flooding required crews to clear storm drains. On Tuesday night, after the Herald deadline, Fung said the plan was to go back out for sanding, as the temperatures were expected to dip below freezing.

The city is divided into 16 plowing districts, each with a city dispatcher and at least two city trucks and another six to 10 vendor trucks. Generally, plowing follows a district system, street by street, but that is often interrupted by emergency calls, putting the city behind the eight ball. Moreover, when an electrical wire is downed, that street becomes off limits to DPW and outside contractors until National Grid or another utility has fixed the problem.

When Cranston Police and Fire respond to a call, crews are diverted to clear a path for them. During the storm, Cranston Police responded to 608 calls for assistance; Cranston Fire to another 285 calls.

Some of those calls were the result of warnings not being heeded. Governor Lincoln Chafee issued a travel ban starting at 5 p.m. Friday, but Cranston had 19 motor vehicle accidents during the storm. A parking ban began at noon on Friday in Cranston, but the city had to tow 22 vehicles to clear the way for plows.

Another 25 calls were for residents in need of evacuation to the city’s shelter, which they opened at the Cranston Senior Center in order to serve the residents who were facing power outages and, as a result, had no heat in their homes. Fifty-two people utilized the service, and Fung thanked both the CERT volunteers who manned the shelter and also Panera Bread, which dropped off food for the residents displaced temporarily from their homes.

At the peak of the storm, National Grid reported that 187,000 customers in Rhode Island were without power.

In Cranston, 12,802 customers were without power at 7 a.m. Saturday, representing 36 percent of National Grid customers in the city. By Saturday at 9 p.m., that number was reduced to 8,980 customers in Cranston. By noon on Sunday, 1,730 Cranston customers were without power, down to just 125 customers by noon Monday.

By noon on Tuesday, nearly all customers had power restored, with fewer than 300 customers statewide in the dark, according to National Grid spokesman David Graves.

Graves said he felt National Grid’s response was “excellent.”

Despite the fiscal and physical costs to the city and its crews, feedback from residents has been primarily negative. We asked followers of the Herald Facebook page how they felt the city did with plowing, and the question elicited nearly 60 responses, very few of which were complimentary.

“They did a horrible job. They had plenty of time to prepare but it seems like no preparation was done at all,” said Katie Shanley.

Rob Dwares said the streets in his area were “horrible.” Tim Gaulin suggested sending bills to the city for cars damaged as a result of the storm. Heather Pina said she was “very disappointed” in the city.

“Cranston ought to be ashamed. We pay so much in taxes, and it is not safe for our children to go to school in this mess,” said Bethany Ferrucci Kettle.

Many posters expressed concern about students walking in the roads or waiting for school buses. Cranston Public Schools announced they would be closed on Friday just after 2 p.m. on Thursday, and announced Monday’s closure by 1:30 p.m. on Sunday.

On Monday, though, the district made the decision to open up with just a one-hour delay on Tuesday. Superintendent Dr. Judy Lundsten could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

“Pray a child is not injured attempting to walk to school,” said Elizabeth Roy.

Fung says hearing those criticisms is “frustrating,” and that keeping up with the volume was next to impossible.

“At the height of the storm, it was whiteout conditions – almost zero visibility,” he said. “A road would be plowed and then a half hour later it looked like it hadn’t been touched.”

He said expecting curb-to-curb plowing is “not realistic,” given the amount of snow that fell. Director of Public Works Ken Mason said that winds too proved problematic, blowing snow from drifts back into the roads.

“People forget that we have over 300 square miles of roads in this city,” Fung said. “This was blizzard-like conditions and an extraordinarily difficult amount of snow to handle.”

Mason said the city was lucky in the respect that so many vendors were available, as all cities and towns were competing for the same pool of resources. In some instances, he said, city trucks just won’t cut it.

“With the magnitude of the storm that we had, the right equipment has to be used,” he said.

On Tuesday morning, as the use of vendors trickled out and DPW employees got back on their regular schedules, Mason said Nemo’s toll is still being felt. Personally, Mason has only been with the city for four months, so Nemo proved to be a “baptism by fire” for him.

“They’re very tired, but they’ve held up well,” he said of his crews.


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