Massive storm puts Northeast on ice

| 2/20/2003

Trucking and other traffic throughout the Northeast part of the country was shut down for much of this week after a record-breaking snowstorm dumped roughly two feet of white on the region.

The storm dumped 26 inches on New York City, making this month the fourth-snowiest February on record, according to media reports. Other areas also had record or near-record snowfalls, including Boston, where the 27 inches of snowfall was the most in 110 years, and Connecticut, where snowfall totals ranged from 10 inches in East Lyme to 24 inches in New Fairfield.

The storm locked up the Eastern Seaboard, first jamming, then emptying snowpacked highways and shutting down virtually every enterprise.

Roads in Connecticut were choked with traffic. Travelers on the New Jersey Turnpike were down to 30 mph with most highways emptied of truck traffic, Gail Toth, president of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association, said.

“I don’t know where the truckers went,” Toth said, “but they weren’t on the turnpike.”

Massive mounds of snow blocked some streets and sidewalks and made it hard to see around corners. Sidestreets were entirely impassable.

Some truckers, seeing forecasts of the coming storm, decided to sit this one out. OOIDA members Bill and Cindy Klemm of Richfield Springs, NY, were among them.

“We saw on the news and The Weather Channel that it was coming in there,” Cindy said. Since the couple had worked hard the previous week, they decided to stay home Monday and watch the storm from the safety of their house. “Sometimes, that’s the best way to go.”

But when they did hit the road again, the Klemms saw plenty of evidence of the storm’s effect on other truckers.

“After we did get going again, we saw these big tracks going into the median, and big tracks going off to the side, and little tracks going off to the side,” Cindy Klemm said. “We were glad we sat still.”

The few carriers who did move freight into New York City switched their loads into smaller straight trucks, and many truckers have been unable to deliver loads at all because their customers – along with most other businesses in the region – have been closed.

New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey declared a state of emergency, giving police the power to close roads, The New York Times reported.

The effort to dig out started immediately, but was hampered by continuing snowfall, often topping 3 inches an hour.

Connecticut state police responded to 165 storm-related accidents, 15 with injuries, The Hartford Courant reported, and snowplow drivers in Connecticut worked 24 hours a day, often in shifts.

By Tuesday, things were better, but not by much.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City said most streets had received attention from the city’s fleet of snowplows by Tuesday, with a goal of plowing all streets by the end of that day.

McGreevey had lifted the state of emergency, but the plowing effort had so drained state coffers – using $13 million of state money – that he told The Times he would ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funds to help the cost. The state budgeted $14 million for snow removal but spent more than $30 million.

Most highways in Connecticut were clear but wet by Tuesday afternoon.

By Wednesday, The Washington Post reported many government, schools and other institutions were still closed in the nation’s capital, and mass transit throughout the area and surrounding region was working on a heavily modified schedule. The newspaper’s traffic monitoring site reported only normal delays on area highways by Wednesday, however, with its traffic cameras showing light traffic on mostly clear roads at noon.

New York and New Jersey were returning to some semblance of normal as well. In the Garden State, most major interstates in the state had at least two of three lanes clear and open to traffic.

“Everyone’s sitting here in amazement,” Toth said. “By yesterday, everyone was moving fine on the turnpike.”

“I have to applaud our DOT; I think they did a great job.”

Cindy Klemm said the highways by Feb. 19 were generally clear, but many side streets and parking lots were still “pretty deep.”

“The interstates were good; we try to stay on them,” she said. But in some places, plows had not yet cleared the entire highway, leaving some lanes snow covered and the highway reduced.

But truckers are still not out of the woods. Several states in the region have laws that require snow on trucks to be removed, and truckers who do not do so could face fines. And the roads still hold hidden hazards.

Side roads are also still difficult to navigate in many areas, according to reports from the trucking industry, local media and other sources. Toth also warned that melted snow is refreezing in the colder nighttime temperatures, leading to black ice on some pavement.

“We’ve had some bad situations with jackknifing,” she said.

Klemm said that Tuesday night, some of the bridges she and her husband crossed had the “wet” look of black ice, but their rig and other vehicles on the road didn’t seem to slide.

“It looked like black ice,” she said. “We slowed down and went around them nice and easy, and nothing happened … It looked spooky enough that everybody slowed down.”

In addition, not all northeast states have been able to completely clear their roads.

Much of the snow removal effort in Connecticut was impeded by a lack of personnel to operate equipment. State officials told The Courant the transportation department has 870 employees to operate roughly 650 pieces of equipment, and that about 10 trucks were not being used because of personnel shortages. The state even called out 242 private plowing contractors to help in the effort.

Klemm said the best advice she and her husband could offer to other truckers entering the area was to “slow down.”

“Leave more distance; people seem to forget that,” she said. “No matter how many times you tell people, they still tailgate. All of us tell each other on the CB radio … it does seem to help.”

--by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor