Published February 10. 2013 4:00AM Updated February 12. 2013 7:10PM
Under a clear, bright sky that belied the wintry mess below, the streets of downtown New London echoed with the muffled sounds of shovels scraping and little else Saturday afternoon.
Gary Brostek, 48, of the Griswold-based property management and snow removal company GAB Services, was hard at work around 3 p.m. with one of those shovels on the steps of Union Plaza offices. He quit at 3 a.m. Saturday after eight hours of clearing pathways in the area; by Saturday afternoon, he'd been on the job since 6 a.m., moving 8-foot-high piles from the sidewalks that crews had plowed from the roads.
His snow blower was useless, he said; his ATV didn't have enough power to shift the snowdrifts and the several inches of packed-solid ice below.
"Thank god for the loader," Brostek said, which idled on the sidewalk beside him.
Another couple of hours, Brostek said, and he'd move on to Mystic, Ledyard, Norwich and Voluntown.
"I'm having fun," he said.
Across the way on State Street, Tommy MacDougall, who manages a few properties downtown, had a shovel over one shoulder and a paper cup of coffee from Zambala Grocery Store in his hand. He'd been shoveling for an hour, he said, struggling with a stubborn mixture of snow and ice - and taking a lot of breaks.
"Another four hours to go," he said.
On Bank Street, a few brave, bored souls populated Kelly's on the Bank, the Y-Knot Café and Captain's Pizza, which seemed to be the only businesses on the block with open doors.
Tina Elert, 27, and Nick Gillette, 23, were snowed in from their jobs as a waitress and as a gas station employee, respectively. Their cars were buried around the corner, they said, and they'd ventured out from their apartment above Captain's for provisions: pizza and cheese fries.
"We got a whole bunch, because this is going to be it for the day," she said. "We're probably not moving again."
Inside Captain's, three Connecticut College seniors were nursing beers at the counter, keeping company with six other patrons.
"We're treating ourselves after a long morning of shoveling," Andrew Freedman said.
Behind the counter, Judy Sadosky said business has been as steady as a typical Saturday.
"We always open for the storms," she said. "We always get here because everybody needs us around here."
A small sign hanging on the door of Kelly's declared in black marker, "WE ARE OPEN." Owner Kelly Hulse - who also owns the Y-Knot across the street - said she had a monopoly on the after-bar crowd Friday night, serving food until around 1 a.m., after other downtown restaurants had closed.
Hulse said she'd been welcoming a fairly steady stream of caffeine-seekers since 10 a.m., more traffic than usual.
"People go out when there's a storm. No matter if it's a hurricane or if it's a blizzard," she said Saturday afternoon. "People just like to be out in it."
Hulse said she would be manning the restaurant alone for the rest of the day. She lives downtown, she said, making it easy for her to come and go.
"I'm gonna stay here as long as people wanna eat," she said.
A quiet start
It would be hard to say the last time downtown New London looked so empty.
Could it have been the blizzard of 1978?
The blizzard of 2013, in any case, cast an eerie stillness over the place Saturday morning.
The main roads into the downtown - Eugene O'Neill Drive, State Street and Bank Street - were all well plowed. But at dawn, there were no cars anywhere in sight, not parked, not traveling.
The sidewalks were gone, too, buried under big drifts. A few pedestrians made their along the streets, which they had to themselves.
They needed to pay no attention to the blinking traffic lights, still swaying overhead in the wind and blowing snow.
The few downtown bars that remained open Friday night during the storm were dark and abandoned Saturday morning, their doorways covered by drifts.
At New London fire headquarters on Bank Street, Deputy Chief Henry Kydd was organizing department manpower to transition from the long night behind him to the busy day ahead.
Twenty-two firefighters were on duty overnight, responding to all kinds of calls, from ambulance runs, many for heart attacks, to reports of limbs and wires down. Firetrucks twice had to be pulled out of the snow.
By Saturday morning, Kydd said, about 20 percent of the city was without power and they were considering evacuating some elderly from cold apartments to a regional shelter in East Lyme.
Indeed, it was already looking like the loss of power would be the focus of emergency responders and public works in the hours and even days ahead.
The firehouse seemed to be the only place Saturday morning downtown where coffee was on.
In fact, a full breakfast was under way in the firehouse kitchen, which fed city public works and emergency teams through the night.