With rain and warmer temperatures forecast today, Massachusetts public safety officials are warning of the danger of collapsed roofs piled with snow from the weekend’s storm. It is being described as the fifth most powerful blizzard in recorded history to hit the Northeast. And it has left tremendous damage in its wake.
There are two reactions that are almost guaranteed as a major storm approaches: Some will raid the local supermarket – stocking up like there’s no tomorrow on bread and milk.
“I stopped by on Thursday on my way home from work,” said Paul Bowen of Somerville. “I needed soy milk, and the store was totally mobbed, the lines were like 20 people deep, so I just gave up and turned around.”
Others second-guess forecasters: You know, those who say out loud “it won’t be as bad as they say.” But by Thursday night, the power of the impending blizzard seemed clear.
Over the weekend, as much as 30 inches fell in Massachusetts and slightly more in Rhode Island. Connecticut saw 40 inches and Maine 35. Winds exceeded 80 mph near Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts. And the snowfall and winds knocked out power to more than 400,000 homes across the state. Gov. Deval Patrick acted swiftly, before the storm.
“You know that yesterday I had asked that people stay off the roads,” Patrick said Friday. “I have now signed an executive order banning vehicle traffic effective at 4:00 today.”
It was the first statewide driving ban since the famed Blizzard of 1978 that dropped 27 inches of snow on the area. Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee also ordered cars off the road. Ed and Vickie Palmer, traveling from Bar Harbor, Maine, said their experience getting here on Friday suggested why a travel ban was needed New England wide.
“We had some tough traveling, avoided an 18-car pileup in Maine,” Ed Palmer said. “One car got out of control and five or six others slammed into it and thirteen more piled on top of that.”
“And it caused a four-hour delay,” Vicki Palmer added.
Similar stories were reported in New York and Connecticut, where travel bans were imposed too late, in the view of many who were stranded in the snow. Massachusetts roads, by the time the 4 p.m. travel ban went into effect, were mainly empty of cars. Boston subway and air travel also came to a screeching halt: At Logan, which on any given day has 100,000 people coming and going and 1,000 flights -- the sounds of anxious passengers were replaced by an almost eerie silence.
But Massport Spokesman Edward Freni said Logan officials were intent on keeping one runway open.
“It all depends on the conditions,” Freni said. “So if the winds sustained over 50 mph, then that becomes conditions that we think we need to stay safe and take the crews off.”
The airport closed altogether on Friday. The winds were fierce. Some air travelers got out or in by the time operations ceased at 3 p.m. Friday.
I also spoke to a couple who had just flown 10,000 miles from Australia, but could not complete the 75 remaining miles to Amherst.
“They decided last night, ‘Well, we’re not going to run any more buses,’” Dan Peterson said. “So here we are.”
Natural disasters have a way of putting greater emphasis on the haves and the have-nots. I found a man named Al Miller sitting alone in Terminal C. He could not afford a hotel.
“”My wife is at home, and not too interested in driving up this distance in the storm,” Miller said. “She says the governor has said, ‘No driving.’ I’m camping … stuck here for the moment.”
Miles away at The Park Plaza, Crystal Sirlis from Wisconsin was also stranded but under better conditions.
“I’m watching a lot of shows,” she said. “Hanging out in my hotel room.”
By Friday evening, near whiteout conditions -- churned up by 60 mph-plus winds -- turned snow into tiny, granite-like projectiles. And it hurt.
As I walked around downtown Boston I observed a ghostly emptiness and stillness. Sidewalks and streets were nearly void of cars and pedestrians – nearly void.
I came across a grandmother and two small children walking past Faneuil Hall, lost and cold.
The children spoke English, the older woman only Chinese. They did not know that subways and buses weren’t running and they were trying to figure out how to get home.
Gino Bucello, a city worker shoveling the sidewalks, Colin Longveld, a North End man passing by and a reporter, flagged down a passing taxi and passed the hat, so to speak, for the fare, and sent them on their way.
Similar acts of kindness were breaking out all over Boston.
At the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, former air force technician, Michael Fleming, had just come in from the cold.
“About 10 minutes ago I walked out to have a cigarette in the alley, which is just right around the corner, and just to get to the alley, walking into the wind, I felt like I was being sandblasted, because right now the snow is kind of icy. I just can’t even imagine being out in this. And I’m very grateful to be in a place right now where I’m warm and I have a bed to sleep in tonight, you know? I have food in my stomach, and people care about me.”
The Veterans Center, though filled to the brim, said staff member Shane Wales, was not turning away anyone, veteran or non-veteran.
“We planned ahead, we knew it was coming, so we planned for ourselves and for other emergency situations,” Wales said. “We set food aside for extra people, cots got placed out, extra blankets, to make sure everybody comes away from the night happy and warm and safe tomorrow.”
Barbara Ferrer, Boston’s Public Health commissioner, says the city worked with various homeless shelters to make sure that no was caught outside in the worst storm so far this century.
“The shelters are full, but capacity expands with need,” she said. “We have a great sheltering system. All last night we worked out shuttle systems to work people between the shelters so as one shelter filled up, and we found beds in another shelter, we were able to move people to those shelters. There’s nobody in the city of Boston – nobody -- who doesn’t have a bed in a shelter right now.”
On the eighth floor of Boston City Hall, calls were coming in from everywhere: Dorchester, South Boston, Roxbury, Roslindale, Back Bay. Eight thousand calls. Many wanted to know when the snow emergency would be lifted. Others needed real help – getting to hospitals from streets blocked by snow to dealing with power outages. Statewide, there were more than 400,000 blackouts. Boston officials say the city experienced far fewer – 2,400 households in Hyde Park -- but by midday Saturday most consumers were back in business.
Saturday afternoon, Mayor Thomas Menino -- with a phalanx of city managers standing behind him -- outlined what the city had done to mitigate damage from the storm: 600 snow plows and other equipment were out on the streets and nearly 1,400 tons of salt had been spread as of Saturday morning.
By Sunday, under bright skies and 30 degree temperatures, thousands of state residents were out on the streets, digging out. Others took advantage of nearly three feet of snow to ski, hike and sled. The travel ban had been lifted. Planes were taking off and landing at Logan. Amtrak was running along the tracks again.
But life was not back to normal for many. The Blizzard of 2013 left in its wake tremendous human and infrastructural damage. There was flooding in Scituate and Hull. And two deaths resulted from the storm: A veteran fireman in Worcester suffered a heart attack, and an 11-year-old Dorchester boy perished trying to stay warm in a car that filled with carbon monoxide as his dad shoveled snow outside.
The Blizzard of 2013 brought with it stories of humanity and tales of anguish. And a consensus is being formed that it could have been far worse, if not for the responses by civil authorities, snow plows, EMS drivers, firemen, national guardsmen -- including one who delivered a baby -- and the state and local leaders who worked together to get ahead of the storm. Now the recovery begins.