December 21, 2014
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Digging out
Eight-year-old Peyton and 6-year-old Remington Czerwein of Johnston helped to build a nine-foot-tall snowman at their house.

The sun was shining and temperatures were climbing yesterday, but last Friday’s forecast told a different story. Nemo dumped roughly two feet of snow in Johnston, in a blizzard that will seriously deplete the town’s snow removal budget.

Although final costs have not yet been calculated, Mayor Joseph Polisena says the storm will easily surpass $60,000, and Director of Public Works Arnie Vecchione said it could go as high as $80,000.

Going into the storm, the budget had roughly $110,000 remaining, meaning there is a maximum of $50,000 left for the remaining month of winter.

Preparations for Nemo began in the middle of last week, with the Department of Public Works sending out the town’s salt brine machine on Wednesday and Thursday to pre-treat roads. Johnston Public Schools decided Thursday afternoon to close schools on Friday.

“We were hearing pretty consistent weather reports for Friday that a substantial storm was coming. We felt it was best to cancel for that day so we wouldn’t be in a situation where we were sending home students when it was dangerous to travel,” said Superintendent Dr. Bernard Di Lullo.

The day before the storm hit, DPW was busy calling independent vendors, putting them on standby for Friday. Locating vendors was a challenge, both because all cities and towns were vying for the same pool of resources, and also because some plow drivers did not renew their licenses after a particularly light winter last year.

Still, the town had 48 pieces of equipment on the roads during the course of the storm, all of which were necessary for the volume of snowfall. When the flakes began to fall on Friday, it quickly began to accumulate.

“Our guys hit it first and then we called in the vendors as we needed them,” Vecchione said.

DPW crews came to work Friday at their normal 7 a.m. start time but were not relieved until 12:30 a.m. Sunday. After catching some sleep, they were called back for 6 a.m. Sunday.

Drivers were encouraged to take breaks, particularly at the Johnston Senior Center, which served as a warming shelter for residents and a meeting place for emergency personnel. Polisena, Vecchione, DPW foremen and other department heads gathered there every four hours or so. Vecchione thanked Building Inspector Peter DelPonte for keeping the troops fed during that time.

Other than the drivers, Polisena said only a handful of residents utilized the shelter, but he wanted to open it because of the loss of power.

Peak outages occurred at 7 a.m. Saturday, at which time 187,000 National Grid customers across the state were without power. In Johnston, 1,825 customers – or 14 percent – were in the dark. National Grid stepped up restoration efforts on Saturday morning as the snowfall decreased and had all but 315 Johnston customers restored by noon on Sunday. On Monday, only 25 customers were without power.

David Graves, a spokesman for National Grid, said he felt the company’s response was “excellent.”

Loss of power is particularly concerning for Johnston residents whose homes use well water. They can’t flush the toilet without power, which prompted the decision to open the Senior Center.

“We had really sporadic pockets of power outage, and I wanted to make sure people weren’t going to freeze,” Polisena said.

The mayor said that the costs associated with the storm were unavoidable and worth it.

“You can’t put a price tag on safety,” he said. “People were very safe; they were a lot safer here than in other communities.”

Comparing Johnston roads to those of surrounding communities, Polisena said he gives the plow drivers an “A” for their work.

“They did a phenomenal job. I am so proud of the DPW and the Recreation Department,” he said, noting that Parks and Recreation does plow work as well.

Not all residents agree, however. On the Sun Rise Facebook page, we asked readers what they thought of the plowing work of the town, and of the 16 responses, nine were critical.

“Johnston did a horrible job plowing. Then again, we all should be used to this by now,” said Adrianna Webster. Colleen Thornton Noonan called the work “pitiful.”

Readers also expressed concerns about the safety of students who had to walk to school or wait in the street for a school bus.

“They did an awful job,” said Laura Finn Tirrell. “My daughter is disabled and has a hard time walking; I am very nervous she is going to get hurt when we walk up to the bus tomorrow, since even though side streets are not plowed, they will have school.”

The amount of cleanup work left prompted Johnston to be one of few communities that cancelled school on Tuesday.

“Clean up was really substantial,” Di Lullo said.

Maintenance workers and Director of Facilities David Cournoyer were on duty all weekend, cleaning roofs and drains, but no school buildings sustained damage because of Nemo. There were no power outages by Monday, either, he said.

“It really was centered around the safety of the students and the staff,” he said, adding that except for some late arrivals, school ran smoothly on Wednesday.

To date, Johnston Schools have five days to make up – three from snow and another two from Hurricane Sandy. That brings the end of the school year to June 20. The district would not have to worry about dipping into vacation time unless more cancellations were necessary, bringing them closer to the June 30 end date that is mandated by the Rhode Island Department of Education.

“We still have some flexibility,” Di Lullo said.

Despite the complaints, Vecchione said the department received many thanks and compliments, too. He shuffled through e-mails and letters already sent in, commending his workers for a job well done.

“I honestly have no complaints,” Keith Bishop posted on our Facebook, saying that they did a “great job” on his street.

“Johnston is a cake walk compared to Pawtucket,” added Jenny Susi. “Johnston looked fine to me today.”

Vecchione said he, too, felt that the town was better off than other communities.

“Compared to other cities and towns, our town was way ahead of the curve,” he said.

He said he understands both sides of the coin. He knows that cleanup was an extensive process, covering 175 miles of road across the town.

“It was difficult. It’s almost impossible to handle,” he said of the volume of snow. “In some cases, it was deserving to get the criticism.”

The process that DPW and outside vendors follows is that the town is broken into five districts. Foremen in each district direct that main arteries be plowed first, followed by side streets, with cul de sacs and dead end streets coming last. One challenge, according to Maintenance Superintendent Michael Panarello, is that residents sometimes shovel or blow their snow back into the road. Another challenge is that widening roadways – a request made by many callers – means kicking snow back into driveways.

“There’s no way to avoid it. If you don’t open the streets, they’re upset; if you widen the streets and plow their driveways back in, they’re upset. It’s a catch-22,” he said.

Thankfully, town officials agreed that residents heeded the warning of state and local agencies, adhering to Governor Chafee’s travel ban that was instituted for 5 p.m. Friday, and following the Johnston parking ban that went into effect at noon Friday.

“A lot of people stayed off the road, I noticed that,” Polisena said. “I can honestly say we were prepared for this blizzard.”

Overall, Vecchione said he was pleased with the job and gave credit to the plow drivers that stayed on the job for more than 48 hours consecutively.

“These guys, I can’t say enough about the women and men here,” he said. “They did an absolutely exceptional job. I’m proud of them, I really am.”


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