Heavier-than-expected snow leads to crashes, school closings

Northbound traffic creeps by and southbound traffic is stopped as Yantic firefighters and state police troopers await heavy-duty wreckers to clear a tractor-trailer blocking the southbound lanes of I-395 between exits 16 and 14 in Norwich on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. The tractor-trailer was traveling north when it spun and crossed the center median striking a southbound car and coming to rest across two southbound and one northbound lanes.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Northbound traffic creeps by and southbound traffic is stopped as Yantic firefighters and state police troopers await heavy-duty wreckers to clear a tractor-trailer blocking the southbound lanes of I-395 between exits 16 and 14 in Norwich on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. The tractor-trailer was traveling north when it spun and crossed the center median striking a southbound car and coming to rest across two southbound and one northbound lanes. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

New London — A dusting or an inch — two inches, tops.

That's what Joe Sastre, Groton's Emergency Management director, saw in his final weather check before going to bed Monday night.

"I watch the weather a lot," Sastre said Tuesday morning, as crews in Groton and other southeastern Connecticut towns plowed out of several inches of heavy snow. "About 5 a.m., my cellphone started jumping all over my bedside table. This one caught everybody by surprise."

Instead of the dusting forecast by the National Weather Service and others, several towns in the region were hit with 3 to 8 inches of snow by 10 a.m. Tuesday.

More than two dozen schools shut down and public safety officials had their hands full with a mix of fender benders, rollovers and six tractor-trailer wrecks on the highways.

"This has really been a trend all winter long, where the expectations are underdone," said Gary Lessor, a meteorologist and assistant director at The Weather Center at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. "These storms just become more dynamic and everybody sees a lot more than expected."

Lessor said the snowstorm ended up "a little closer than it was thought to be," and southeastern Connecticut caught the brunt of it, which is "highly unusual."

Sastre said when storms meet an imaginary benchmark point 80-plus miles southeast of Long Island, the region sees the effects; if a system skirts that mark, the area typically is in the clear.

"In this case, that little storm system decided to go over this way for a little bit against all the computer models," he said. "It just goes to show you with all the technology and computers and weather monitors, nature does what nature does."

The bigger-than-expected storm dumped about 7 inches of snow in Norwich and since only a dusting to an inch was expected, officials did not call for a parking ban Monday night, Public Works Director Ryan Thompson said. He said it would not have been fair to vehicle owners to enact the ban early Tuesday morning once the storm intensified, because people would be waking up to learn they were in violation.

Instead, Thompson said crews worked around parked vehicles as best they could, and sought out owners in a few spots where vehicles had to be moved.

Thompson said despite the unexpected snow totals, crews have kept up with plowing and there were few problem spots.

New London Public Works Director Brian Sear said his team relies on the Precision Weather Forecasting service, which by 8 p.m. Monday was only calling for 1 to 2 inches of snow.

But police reached out to an on-call emergency "highway man" about midnight to warn of heavier-than-expected snow and some areas icing up, Sear said.

The team debated whether to have one or two trucks work the streets but "our gut instinct was this was going to be more than they said," Sear said. So the full highway crew and peripheral staff were called in shortly after midnight.

"I've got to hand it to my crew. They made the right call," he said. "We ended up in the ballpark of 8 inches."

'Welcome to New England'

In addition to minor accidents in several towns, the state Department of Transportation reported six tractor-trailer crashes in Bozrah, Groton, East Lyme, Old Saybrook, Montville and Norwich.

In the Norwich crash, on I-395 near exit 18 just before 9 a.m., a Goodwill Industrial of Western Connecticut tractor-trailer traveling north lost control and crossed the center median, slamming into a southbound vehicle whose driver and passenger were transported to Backus Hospital with minor injuries. State police cited the truck driver, Marino Florez, 63, of Norwalk, for traveling too fast for the road conditions.

The highway's southbound lanes were closed for more than three hours, police said.

Kevin Nursick, DOT spokesman, said the agency was not surprised by the storm and initiated its routine statewide pre-treatment protocol, covering 300 lane miles of bridge surfaces, hills, valleys and known trouble spots with a salt-brine solution overnight.

Places like the Gold Star Bridge are "ripe for that black ice flash frosting event" that pre-treatment prevents, Nursick said.

"We knew something was coming in," Nursick said. "To be frank, it's typical for weather to be unpredictable. There's art and science there, and it's never 100 percent accurate. But you always have to be ready. Welcome to New England."

Nursick said the forecasts may have translated "into a grumpier public because they get up in the morning and see 6 inches of snow" when they only expected a dusting. That also can lead to accidents, he said, because "now you've got those people trying to rush to get to work because their built-in travel time doesn't exist."

Nursick suggested that over the last 10 years, the public has "put more and more onus on the DOT and DPWs" as opposed to motorists themselves, who in years past may have been more likely to use snow tires. Using purely salt to provide totally bare-asphalt roads during a snow event would be unrealistic and cost-prohibitive, Nursick added, whereas the saltwater pre-treatment costs the state mere hundreds of dollars in materials.

"We've struck the best balance that we can in terms of using a conservative amount of salt to achieve reasonably safe roads," he said.

Lessor said the region already had seen upward of 24 inches of snow this season, an inch or two more than what it sees in an average winter. He noted temperatures would rise into the 40s on Thursday, before lower temperatures and another system — rain, then snow — drift in Thursday night into Friday morning.

Thursday’s system and another on Sunday are expected to bring about an inch of snow each, according to weather models.

“But you saw what happened today,” Lessor said.

Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.

b.kail@theday.com

Joe Donahoe of East Lyme pulls his son Jackson, 4, who is resting in his sled, back up the hill while they spend time at McCook Point Park in Niantic on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Joe Donahoe of East Lyme pulls his son Jackson, 4, who is resting in his sled, back up the hill while they spend time at McCook Point Park in Niantic on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Richard Mehlman of New London carries his Yorkshire terrier Bingo as he walks his poodle Hadley down an unplowed Coit Street on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, in New London. He said snow on unpaved sidewalks and roads was too deep for Bingo and he ended up carrying her most of the way on their daily walk. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Richard Mehlman of New London carries his Yorkshire terrier Bingo as he walks his poodle Hadley down an unplowed Coit Street on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, in New London. He said snow on unpaved sidewalks and roads was too deep for Bingo and he ended up carrying her most of the way on their daily walk. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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