Town copes with historic storm

March 10, 2011

By Tim Simard
Observer staff
Jeff Gilbert of Williston clears a path on Terry Lane during Monday's historic snowstorm. (Courtesy photo by Tracy DeBrita)

Snow lovers received a bountiful gift Sunday and Monday, while motorists and road workers dealt with the headaches of an historic snowstorm this week.

More than two feet of heavy, wet snow fell across northern Vermont, crippling roadways, closing schools and causing Champlain Valley residents to spend the day shoveling rather than working. What started out as a rainy mess Sunday afternoon quickly turned to snow, freezing up the highways and helping create numerous accidents.

“I think the storm caught a lot of people by surprise,” said Bruce Hoar, Williston’s Public Works director.

As late as Friday, weather forecasters called for heavy rains and potential floods as a large storm approached. That suddenly changed Sunday, when local meteorologists guessed the Champlain Valley could instead expect 15 to 30 inches of snow by Monday night. That accumulation estimate turned out to be correct, with this week’s storm entering into the top five snowfalls ever recorded in Vermont, according to The National Weather Service.
What some didn’t count on was the wind, which whipped hard Monday morning and created snowdrifts across many roadways.

“It wasn’t a day to be out driving,” said Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton.

That’s especially true for motorists who ventured onto Interstate 89. The Vermont State Police closed a section of the highway between exits 11 and 12 on the Richmond-Williston town line more than once on Monday. In the steep stretch of Interstate 89 known as French Hill, several tractor-trailer trucks skidded under the slippery snow, coming to complete stops and blocking traffic.

“Those were our main culprits with all the tie-ups on the interstate,” said Dave Blackmore, the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s district administrator for the Champlain Valley.

The first closure occurred on the northbound side of the highway during morning rush hour, around 7:45 a.m. State Police Public Information Officer Stephanie Dasaro said, after clearing the trucks, authorities opened the highway around 10:30 a.m. Interstate 89 northbound closed again for about 45 minutes around 1 p.m. for the same reason.

Blackmore said VTrans’ plows paid extra attention to French Hill, trying to keep it free and clear of ice and snow. But the trucks still stacked up along the hill when one after another became mired in the snow, he said.

“We certainly had our challenges yesterday,” Blackmore said on Tuesday.

At one point Monday afternoon, State Police asked commercial drivers to stay off the highways, Dasaro added.

Later on Monday, on Interstate 89 southbound, a tractor-trailer crashed at the bottom of French Hill over the Richmond town line around 4:45 p.m., closing the highway again. The highway reopened at 6 p.m. Morton and his fellow firefighters helped respond to the call, treating the driver for minor injuries. He said the driver was lucky to escape relatively unscathed, considering the wreck.

On Tuesday, a section of Interstate 89 northbound in Richmond closed after melting snow refroze on the roadways and caused more accidents.

While the VTrans and State Police dealt with problems on the interstate, town workers kept all Williston roads open, said Hoar. While it was difficult to keep up with the wind-driven snow, Hoar said the town’s plow drivers did a great job under challenging conditions.

“The plows were sliding all over the place, but we didn’t lose anything,” Hoar said.

Williston Police Chief Roy Nelson said he deployed the department’s two four-wheel drive vehicles throughout the storm. Police responded to 13 storm-related calls – most of which were minor accidents – on Sunday and Monday. Nelson said most drivers kept to safe speeds.

“People taking due caution helped us out quite a bit,” Nelson said.

Besides providing assistance Monday afternoon at the tractor-trailer accident on Interstate 89, Williston fire crews responded to eight other storm-related incidents, Morton said. Most of the calls came from carbon monoxide detector alarms. The heavy snow plugged up heating vents, causing the gas to pour into homes. Morton said crews detected only minimal levels of carbon dioxide in each case.

Hundreds of schools across Vermont closed Monday, including all districts within Chittenden South Supervisory Union. While Champlain Valley Union High School opened on time Tuesday, the Williston School District struggled with storm-related problems, causing a daylong closure.

In order for schools to open, all emergency exits must be cleared of snow, said Bob Mason, chief operations officer for CSSU. Officials determined the high snow drifts surrounding Williston Central and Allen Brook schools would be impossible to clear even after a two-hour delay, Mason said in regards to the district’s Tuesday closure. The Shelburne School District also remained closed Tuesday for the same reason, he added.

While Williston residents finish digging out from the storm, they’ll need to look ahead towards the end of the week. According to forecasts, another mixed bag of rain, sleet and snow is headed to the Champlain Valley Thursday and Friday.