Water main break on Christmas Eve

Published in the December 28, 2017 edition


NORTH READING — “Oh the weather outside is frightful. But the fire is so delightful. So since we’ve no place to go, Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”

The lyrics to the popular Sammy Cahn/Jules Stein tune, “Let it Snow!” (penned during a California heat wave in 1945) could not have been more apropos for the storm that blanketed the region for the first time on the actual Christmas Day holiday in 14 years.

MARY ROAD was the scene of this likely detour following the weekend of storms. (Andy Nichols Photo)

But complicating the rare holiday treat were the storms that occurred leading into the holiday weekend.

According to DPW General Foreman Chris Deming, during the combination snow/freezing rain event on Friday, Dec. 22 into Saturday, Dec. 23, they had crews working from 7 a.m. Friday until 9 p.m. Saturday.

“We had an inch and half of snow on Friday followed by about a quarter of inch of freezing rain,” Deming said, adding it was difficult to measure the total snowfall Friday night before it switched over given the immediacy of the freezing rain which compacted the earlier snowfall.

“We had about 30 separate calls for anything from a small branch in the road to some good size (fallen) trees. It just wouldn’t end. They kept saying the temperature was going to go up and it never did,” Deming said.

The DPW crews were sent home Saturday, Dec. 23 at 9 p.m. “And everything froze back up like a sheet of ice on Saturday night by midnight and we had to re-salt the entire town,” Deming recalled.

Water main break

As if the DPW did not have enough to worry about after crews spent the early morning hours of Christmas Eve on Sunday re-salting the town’s streets, a water main break was reported on Riverside Drive, just off Elm Street, around 10:30 or 11 a.m.

Deming estimates about 25 houses were affected by the water main break. “We were able to fix it pretty quickly. It was one of those that just went easy,” he said, which was a relief because with all the holiday preparations taking place on Christmas Eve not having access to running water can really put a wrinkle in the celebratory mood.

“We had a crew in here for five or six hours but those things can get very ugly very quickly,” so he was relieved the turnaround on the repair went so smoothly and since it was sunny, “the road didn’t freeze over.” 

Crews were sent home by 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve for a seven-hour break, Deming said. “We had the salting and sanding crews scheduled to come back in at midnight on Christmas morning.”

The Christmas snowstorm gained steam by 3 a.m., he recalled. “We started plowing and treating the main roads to keep them open and at about 9:30 a.m. the heavens opened up. We got 2 1/2 to 3 inches of snow in 45 minutes to an hour.”

“We had our full DPW staff – every single one of them – was here all day Christmas,” Deming said, adding this totaled a crew of 15, and he was grateful for their response in giving up their holiday with their families.

“I know the town appreciates the hard work and dedication of the full-time DPW crews as well as the contractors that sacrificed their holiday to plow snow for the town,” Deming said.

“We had about 50 percent of the contractors. There were some questions about some roads not being (plowed) until the middle of the afternoon, but we just didn’t have the manpower to get everything done right away,” Deming explained.

“We were all double time, but the contractors cost a lot more than we do, so with only 50 percent of the contractors, it will average out to be an average storm,” he said.

Defining “average storm” is also tough, year to year, giving the fluctuations in materials and labor costs. “You can have an inch of snow that costs X and an inch of snow that costs Y; it all depends on the temperature of the ground and the forecast after it stops snowing. There are too many variables on my end,” he said.

“Every year it changes so much. The price of fuel and the salt plays a role. The salt went down $15 a ton this year and with everything that happened a couple of years ago our DPW crew is a lot smaller on the pay scale than we were before, so the labor is actually cheaper than it was a couple of years ago,” Deming said.

On Christmas Day, the contractors reported for duty by 10:30 a.m. and the last contractors and the DPW employees were done by 6 p.m. Before they left, they had to ensure that all the buildings and cemeteries were accessible for Tuesday morning.

“You can’t wait until the next day to do it. You got to get it done right away before it freezes,” he said, adding, “Everybody says it’s good money, but what’s good money on Christmas? We do have several employees with very young kids. But it’s the job; it’s no different than the first responders who got to work.”

Deming said there were no major accidents that he was aware of and he was pleased that the DPW did not have any issues with equipment breakdowns. “Our mechanic has been doing a good job. We haven’t had any major breakdowns in any of our trucks this winter,” he said. Their fleet ranges from pick-up trucks to six-wheel and 10-wheel dump trucks.

“It’s a fairly newer fleet and well-maintained,” he said.

Keep hydrants, drains clear

Deming added that it would be very helpful if residents who live near fire hydrants and storm drains could keep them free of snow and ice. “Anything that can help us do our job makes everything a lot easier for everybody,” Deming said.

His best advice to residents during snow emergencies can be summed up on one word: Patience.

He urged “people to be patient. We’re not going to forget about you. We’re going to get everything done and sometimes when you have 50 percent of the contractors (available) it takes a little bit of time.”

Monday’s storm was unique in that it was snowing quite intensely for a relatively short amount of time, but once it stopped and the sun came out, everyone went outside at once anticipating that the plowing would be done.

“In some instances it took three or four hours to get to your street,” Deming said. He said the crews were also delayed a bit by the fact that more cars than usual had to be parked on the sides of roads during the storm due to the timing of holiday visitors.

DPW crews were sent out on Tuesday to open up the roads that were “tight” due to the presence of cars on the road on Christmas Day.

Openings for more contractors

Deming explained that the reduction of 50 percent of the usual contractor fleet to get the town plowed included those who may have informed the town at the end of last season that they could not continue to plow.

“A lot of smaller contractors — the guy with one pick-up truck — it’s hard for him to justify the insurance cost to plow snow five to six times a year and some of the bigger contractors are downsizing because if you’re paying $10,000 in insurance just to plow snow you got to make some good money to recoup that back and turn a profit. Then there are contractors who may have five trucks but he can only get three of his guys. There is really no signed contract in regards to what happens if you don’t show up,” Deming explained, and given how difficult it is to find willing contractors to do the work, termination is unlikely.

Plowing packets are available at the DPW office at Town Hall, 235 North St. “We are most definitely still taking applications,” Deming said.

Now he’s crossing his fingers that the long-range forecast for the New Year’s Eve/Day holiday weekend is off the mark. “There’s talk of another storm next weekend too. We’d like to enjoy one holiday this winter!” he said.

Snowfall to date

Total snowfall for the 2017-18 season to date is 13.75 inches

The total expenditure to date was not known at press time as DPW Director Andrew Lafferty was on vacation this week and the billing is not complete.