By Marjorie Nesin
---- — GLOUCESTER -- While residents stop by grocery stores this morning to grab peanut butter, milk and bread, the city’s Department of Public Works will be completing its own storm preparations — again.
Friday morning, crews equipped with chainsaws dismantled about 41 feet of the Good Harbor Beach footbridge that the Blizzard of 2013 thrashed and hacked apart at its road-connected end two weeks ago, according to Peter Dennen, the city’s supervisor of highways and public properties and a 38-year Gloucester DPW veteran.
The Public Works head mechanic is hooking up 10-foot steel plows to trucks this morning, and public workers sit at the edge of their seats for the day, and the weekend, as they prepare for another possibly sleepless weekend behind the wheel of a plow.
“It’s hard to predict Mother Nature when it comes to the ocean, because you don’t know what’s going to happen until that time,” Dennen said.
The storm, anticipated tonight and into Sunday morning, may pile another 3 to 7 inches of what meteorologists are predicting to be heavy, wet snow onto Gloucester and other areas of northeastern Massachusetts. But even 24 hours before precipitation was slated to begin, no one could be sure if we should expect snow or rain, keeping Public Works crews on their toes.
“This is gonna be one of these kind of crazy storms that you just have to watch,” Dennen said Friday. “I do rain dances all the time.”
When snow begins to fall, the police typically call over to the Public Works Department, letting Dennen know it’s time to start pre-treating the roads with a magnesium chloride mixture that can never freeze, unlike plain road salt. And, though salt and the mixture both cost more than sand, they are favored as more environmentally friendly options.
In the course of a normal snowstorm, Gloucester’s Public Works Department spews about 400 tons of the salt. That’s because Gloucester nearly tops the mileage of roadways per city in the state, with about 80 miles of public road and more miles of private roads that the city plows.
As drivers venture into the storm to pretreat the roadways with the salty mixture, Dennen heads to the office and starts calling his team of 13 employees and the 54 contractors that will help finish the job. During Blizzard Nemo of two weeks past, the Public Works employees spent almost the entire weekend working the plows, according to Dennen, who himself clocked about 80 hours of overtime, he said.
”We rely on the contractors now. We’re right out straight ourselves,” Dennen said.
The pre-treatment dissipates the initial snowfall, but once two or three inches have fallen, the plow drivers crank on the ignitions and head out to intricately mapped routes. The plows and snowblowers of various sizes and types continue to scrape and grind along their routes, battling the falling flakes in a race of endurance.
Before the flakes even begin to cause a nuisance, though, Coast Guard Gloucester also requested Friday that residents with boats and small crafts tied up outside, head over to the station on Harbor Loop to pick up a free orange durable sticker label that will help coasties identify a canoe, kayak or small boat’s owner if it floats loose.
”If one of those drifts off, that could be hours and hours of us searching and not knowing if there’s a person missing,” said Boatswains Mate Second Class Jeff Quinn.
Quinn said residents can expect to see Coast Guard Station Gloucester flying either one red-triangular flag or a pair of the red-triangular flags during the weekend. One flag signifies a small craft advisory, meaning sustained 20 to 33 knot winds; two flags warns of gale force winds at speeds of 39 to 54 miles per hour.
Gloucester Fire Chief Eric Smith, who also serves as the city’s emergency operations chief, is advising residents to stock up on necessary medications before the storm strikes. Smith requests that people who lose their electricity, unless the situation presents a life threatening emergency, call National Grid rather than 911 or emergency lines. And, as usual, the fire department urges residents to be cautious with heaters and gas-powered devices during a potential outage.
Though the city will not have a storm shelter for residents, Red Cross is prepared to step in and create a shelter if it does become necessary, according to Smith, though he expects the storm to be “routine.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.