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A frozen day in the city

In collage of snow stories, people brave second big winter blast

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January 13, 2011

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As snow swirled and howled and conditions neared whiteout yesterday, Boston City Hall sat largely silent, offices empty and corridors dark. But hidden in a corner on the eighth floor, a room pulsed with activity, the air tinged by the odor of coffee and sweat.

Twenty-four call takers chattered into headsets while a billboard-sized flat screen television showed the exact position of all 569 plows skimming city streets.

“This is the mayor’s information hub,’’ said Donald McGough, the city’s director of emergency preparedness. “People are getting their marching orders on what our priorities are, so we don’t lose the big picture and things don’t sneak up on us.’’

Welcome to Boston’s storm center, part high-tech nerve center, part weather war room. Here, staff members triaged a deluge of calls yesterday from residents who woke up to a stifling blanket of snow.

Normally the room hosts the mayor’s 24-hour hotline. Employees respond to calls about potholes and missed trash pickups. But yesterday information streamed in from all quarters — the National Weather Service on the phone with the latest forecast or one of the 4,900 Allston residents who had lost power.

But the radical new data source here is the SnowCOP, a program that displays the real-time location of every plow and storm-related vehicle rumbling through the city.

Yesterday morning, cartoon snowplow images moved across the huge screen, each representing a truck, all of which are equipped with global positioning devices that ping their location every one or two minutes.

The trucks are color coded: blue for city equipment, red for contractor plows, and yellow for inspector vehicles that check the work. Emergency calls flash as red telephones. Requests for standard plows and sanding appear as blue telephones.

A swarm of the cartoon trucks buzzed near the city’s public works garage, in the shadow of Interstate 93.

“This happens to be Frontage Road,’’ said Chris Osgood, one of the mayor’s new urban mechanics. “They are going back to get salt.’’

As a plow navigated the city on the program, it dropped “breadcrumbs,’’ little dots on streets that highlight where vehicles had been. Fresh dots showed green, signifying a freshly plowed street. After one hour, the dots turned a street yellow. And when a plow had not passed in two or three hours, a street glowed red.

In the middle of the room, Jim Greene paced, head down and elbows out as his two thumbs furiously tapped out text messages. Woods Mullen shelter had been inundated by homeless people seeking refuge from the storm. They needed emergency buses to transport people to a shelter with open beds.

“I’m just texting to let them know that Commissioner Tinlin had worked his magic,’’ said Greene, head of the Boston Emergency Shelter Commission.

At that moment, Transportation Commissioner Thomas J. Tinlin walked by and took off his Red Sox cap. “You want to see me pull a rabbit out of my hat?’’ he quipped, punchy because he had been up all night.

Tinlin had already worked a bit of magic, actually. He had gotten MBTA buses to the scene.

All the while yesterday, the phones kept ringing. Between midnight and 4:30 p.m., the center logged 3,314 calls, including 686 for downed trees and power lines.

A few called just to vent.

“Good morning, mayor’s office,’’ said Matt Segneri, a fellow from Harvard Business School, answering a call early in the day from a home off Gallivan Boulevard in Dorchester.

“He put snow in your car?’’ Segneri asked. “I’m very sorry about that sir.’’

In the next cubicle, Nick Martin took a complaint about an unplowed street.

“It’s in Brookline?’’ asked Martin, who is a special assistant to the mayor’s chief of staff. “I’m sorry, sir, this is the city of Boston.’’

Then Segneri picked up a line that made him stop cold and wave over a supervisor as he patched the caller into a noon staff meeting.

“That was the mayor,’’ Segneri said of Menino, who was monitoring conditions from his home in Hyde Park. “That’s a call, I understand, that they get a lot here.’’

’ Andrew Ryan

Shivering on the platform, waiting for train to come MELROSE — Hooded, huddled figures trudged their way through the whipping storm to the Cedar Park train stop yesterday morning, stomping their boots on the platform to mark their arrival. They had made it. But no train had, for at least the past 20 minutes, and the sign said to expect delays.

At 8:30, it was the heart of rush hour, but the world was still. Plows rumbled by now and again, but cars were scarce, and even the market was closed. Except for the group on the windswept platform, there was no one in sight.

Most days, commuters keep the chitchat to a minimum, preferring to read or listen to music. But the shared experience of the storm seemed to make people feel neighborly, and conversation was brisk. This was a real storm, many said, not just some overblown flurries. The weathermen had gotten one right for once, a few quipped. And everyone, even those who normally curse the cold, agreed it was a beautiful snowfall.

Maybe it would snow again Sunday, a burly man in a Patriots hat said. The Patriots play great in the snow, others agreed.

People tried to log onto the MBTA website for the latest, but it was down. As the wind whipped, drenching any clothes not made for wetness, people stared down the tracks hopefully. But there was nothing to see except swirling snow.

As time went by, the commuters fell into shivering silence. Some paced to stay warm. Others relocated to the market, where the wind was not as bad. A few decided they had had enough and headed home.

Near the stop, a large tree cracked as a snow-covered branch gave way, narrowly missing a power line.

Finally, mercifully, bells began to ring, and the train rounded the bend. The crowd let out a muffled cheer and clapped their gloves together. At last. Seeing the lowered gates, one late arrival scrambled through the snowy parking lot to the platform, smiling at her good luck.

The group trundled onto the train and savored the warmth. From behind the window, the long wait soon melted away, and the day became beautiful again.

’ Peter Schworm

N.H. city remains quiet under big blanket of snow PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Here, streets were empty, and stores and cafes mostly closed. But a few hearty souls braved the elements.

“You don’t get to see Portsmouth under this kind of snow every day,’’ said Brian Zottoli, a teacher from Kittery, Maine, who had walked over the bridge connecting Kittery and Portsmouth with his wife and 4-year-old son.

Brandon Czarnecki was in town executing his Plan B, renting “Wall Street II,’’ which he planned to watch with his girlfriend at her house in nearby Durham.

“I tried going to work and got stuck three times, so I said forget it,’’ said the 23-year-old customer service representative for a cable company in Portland, Maine. “I used to have a truck, and I tell you, I miss it. I really miss it.’’

Marie Legare, of Fort Collins, Colo., was in town visiting her parents. The snow was nothing too impressive by Colorado measures; a lot more falls in her adopted state, she said. But the New Hampshire snow was wetter and heavier, the sort she does not miss shoveling.

“We get a dry snow,’’ she said. “Six inches can fall, and all you have to do is broom it away.’’

’ Sarah Schweitzer

Taking a break in Back Bay on one long commute You know it is a long commute when you have to stop for a snack.

Sitting on a bench inside the Back Bay T station yesterday morning, Wendy Ng hurriedly finished a croissant and cup of coffee before continuing the final leg of her morning commute.

The trip normally takes 30 minutes by car. But two hours into her trip on the Orange Line yesterday, the social worker was so hungry and so unsure when she would arrive that she got off the T for some coffee.

It was only late morning, but it had already been a long day.

“I started calling about the bus times at 7:30 a.m.,’’ Ng said between bites. An hour later, she headed to the stop, figuring she had accounted for delays. “You know what time the bus came? 10:06 a.m.’’

Still, she said, catching a bus and two trains was better than shoveling out her car and braving the roadways.

Many Boston workers got a snow day yesterday, but not everyone was so lucky. Those who had to go to work pulled on waterproof boots, hats, and gloves to fight the blistering winds, bitter cold, and blowing snow on their morning commute.

But what these architects, dry cleaners, nurses, and other professionals did not have to fight was traffic.

Heeding the city’s advice or using what some just deemed common sense, those commuters faced the elements, traded car keys for CharlieCards, and took public transportation.

Underground, small crowds ambled about train platforms, waiting to be ferried to their destinations.

“I thought it was going to be, like, apocalyptic, and I was going to be the only one here,’’ Laura Burt said, shaking out her umbrella on the Orange Line’s Green Street platform at about 7:50 a.m. She was headed to work on Newbury Street.

“For some ungodly reason, I have to open the store,’’ she said. “God forbid someone has a fashion emergency.’’

’ Akilah Johnson

At Brigham and Women’s, surgeries go on as planned Emergency rooms at Boston’s major hospitals were unusually quiet yesterday, a pattern seen time and again during big storms, when people are inclined to stay home and not engage in behaviors that can lead to a trip to the ER.

The few weather-related injuries, consistent with what was reported during last month’s storm, involved unfortunate encounters with snow blowers.

Patients already booked for surgeries braved the elements, for the most part, to arrive at the appointed hour. At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, nearly all of about 100 planned operations went off as scheduled.

’ Stephen Smith

Near shore, low tides keep the bad flooding at bay SCITUATE — Jim McCarthy has seen his share of winter storms, including the one last month that flooded parts of this South Shore town.

“You bet your life I was’’ worried about flooding, the 83-year-old McCarthy said as he stood outside his home on Jericho Road. “Last storm, I lost all my heating and some of my electricity, but I think we’re going to luck out on this one. I hope.’’

Low tides kept flooding at bay in Scituate as the powerful nor’easter made its way up the coast, although the town experienced sporadic power outages.

Police Chief Brian Stuart said National Grid’s response was more organized for yesterday’s storm.

“It seems better,’’ he said. “The contracted tree cutters are out, and there seems to be more of a presence, so that’s a good thing.’’

He added: “Put it this way. They are here, and they weren’t for a while last time. But there is a lot to keep up with.’’

’ Jessica Bartlett