Heavy, wet snow may hit sagging roofs, limbs today

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / February 2, 2011

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With yesterday’s snowstorm landing another bruising blow to a winter-weary region, today’s encore is expected to bring a messy mix of snow, ice, and rain to challenge commuters of all kinds.

The first blast of the two-fisted storm descended on Greater Boston yesterday, snarling traffic, canceling hundreds of flights, and sending children home early from school. After an evening lull, snowfall was expected to intensify overnight, and road crews across the state were put on alert for an exhausting encore.

“We’ll have people out most of the night,’’ said Luisa Paiewonsky, head of the state’s highway division. “It’s supposed to really pile up.’’

The storm, the latest in a series that has pounded the region, was expected to dump several more inches on Boston by today’s end for a two-day total of about a foot, and more to the north and west. Less snow was expected on the South Shore and Cape Cod.

According to the National Weather Service in Taunton, Boston received 6.8 inches of snow yesterday, and is expected to get 3 to 6 inches more today.

Forecasters said the storm will probably linger through the day before tapering off in the evening. Many school systems, including Boston, canceled school in anticipation of more snowfall.

Yesterday, slick road conditions slowed the morning commute to a crawl and caused numerous spinouts and minor accidents throughout the day, officials said. With conditions hazardous, State Police banned tandem trucks and propane tankers on the Massachusetts Turnpike and lowered the speed limit to 40 miles per hour.

David Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police, said there were no reports of serious crashes, but urged drivers to proceed with caution on all state highways.

Midmorning, a school bus carrying children toward Boston on the turnpike was turned completely around after an apparent accident. The bus managed to turn around and continue along without further incident. Commuters reported lengthy delays on the rail, bus, and subway lines, and up to 50 percent of flights were canceled at Logan Airport.

Several roofs collapsed under the weight of heavy snow, including a warehouse roof in Holliston. About 20 workers escaped unharmed. Worried homeowners rushed to hardware stores to buy roof rakes, buying out stocks at some stores.

But as the region muddled through another snowy day, emergency officials cast a wary eye toward this morning, when the light, fluffy snow could turn to an icy mix. The forecast raised fears of treacherous road conditions, widespread power outages, and roof collapses.

“That’s the worst-case scenario,’’ said Peter Judge, a spokesman for the state’s emergency management agency. “Ice will stick to the wires and the trees, and the light, fluffy snow that’s been falling will act like a sponge.’’

Caroline Allen, a spokeswoman for NStar, which has 1.1 million electric customers in Eastern Massachusetts, said a predicted snow-sleet mix could pose problems with so much snow already weighing down limbs and power lines.

“We have all line crews reporting to work at 6 a.m.,’’ she said. “We’re gearing up for the worst in the afternoon.’’

Like many communities, Worcester was scrambling to handle the back-to-back storms, said Bob Moylan Jr., public works commissioner in Worcester, who hoped the snow would let up long enough for plow drivers to catch some much-needed sleep.

“Our guys have been at this 24-7 for weeks now,’’ he said. “With budget cuts, everyone’s down people, so there’s no bench. “

In Fitchburg, officials planned to stagger crews throughout the day so they could make it through the lengthy storm.

“We’ve called in everyone,’’ said Lenny Laakso, public works commissioner. “It’s getting old.’’

In Holliston, Fire Chief Michael Cassidy said workers inside the flat-roofed warehouse at the time of the collapse reported a “cracking and a very loud boom.’’

“That building is still shifting, still creaking and groaning,’’ he said.

Owner Pete MacDonald said it was too early to tell about the extent of the damage or when the building might be ready for use. “We’re glad nobody got hurt,’’ he said.

The commuter rail had another difficult day, with 53 percent of morning trains delayed at least five minutes, including 10 that were delayed 40 minutes or more. Several trains were temporarily delayed by track switches that became packed with snow, overloading the built-in heaters, said Scott Farmelant, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad.

An afternoon train on the Haverhill Line could not accelerate because of ice buildup on the wheels and axles, causing a 90-minute delay, Farmelant said.

“The equipment is definitely suffering some fatigue here,’’ he said.

In Boston, the relentless snowfall has nearly filled the city’s six “snow farms,’’ where dump trucks lug mounds of snow excavated from streets with massive front-end loaders. But the city just secured additional dumping grounds, including an acre in South Boston that is larger than the other snow farms combined.

“We can come here and dump 30 trucks across and really increase productivity,’’ said Elmo Baldassari, the deputy commissioner of public works. “The more we remove, the better it will be for the rest of winter.’’

“But we’re into February,’’ Baldassari added in a hopeful note. “I hope Mother Nature takes care of it pretty soon.’’

Martin Finucane, Lisa Kocian, Eric Moskowitz, and Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.