Town weathers blizzard with all hands on deck for 30 plus hour cleanup

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – They worked in shifts for more than 30 hours, sleeping between passes as they fought to keep roads manageable through a storm that lasted into the night.

A team of 13 employees with the North Smithfield Department of Public Works planned to continue cleanup work into Sunday, Jan. 30, following a blizzard that dumped more than 17 inches of snow on roads across town.

“We’re just having a tough time staying caught up,” Jamie Leclair, a former Marine who has worked for the town since 2013, said Saturday afternoon.

Leclair noted that in North Smithfield, crews reported to work around midnight on Friday, just after the storm began, dividing 66 miles of town roadway into districts of 20-25 streets apiece.

When NRI NOW stopped by around 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, most plow operators were starting their fourth pass. Four trucks had broken down and had to be taken temporarily out of commission for minor repairs at the garage on Eddie Dowling Highway, where they were fixed up and sent back on the road.

And with snow falling at a rate of two inches per hour through much of the day, the group still had a long night ahead.

Each district, Leclair said, takes about four hours to cover with a decent truck, leaving three to four inches of new snow on the first roads in the route by the end of a pass. An older truck could take closer to five hours.

“It’s brutal,” he said.

“We haven’t really salted much. When you have a storm of this magnitude, you don’t pre-treat the roads,” Leclair explained. “There’s actually a science to it.”

Helping the effort were plows with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, hitting many of the town’s main roads. In North Smithfield, there are 42 miles of state roadway, falling under RIDOT’s purview.

But for such large storms, it’s still all hands on deck for DPW staff, and between passes, employees typically try to get some rest in the town building, or in their car or truck.

“Normally what I do is sleep in my truck,” Leclair said, noting that he keeps a heated, plug-in blanket in the vehicle.

“We’re doing good,” said DPW worker Rich Costello. “We’re staying out there.”

Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski said that during most storms, he’ll head out to check on important areas in town including the police and fire stations, town buildings and senior housing complexes to make sure all are accessible. Sometimes, he’ll jump out to help clear snow with residents who are struggling.

During our ride along Saturday, most had snowblowers. DPW staff seemed to be staying ahead of the game with effort, including Park & Recreation Supervisor James Vadenais.

“We’re working hard and trying to keep the roads clear,” said Vadenais. “It was white out for about an hour, and I had to stop.”

A wet but friendly James Vadenais waves from a town plow truck.

“The roads are in pretty good shape,” Zwolenski said. “I might go back out tonight.”

He was right – with a few exceptions.

Snow had accumulated on streets surrounding the administrator’s own neighborhood early Saturday evening, and NRI NOW witnessed first-hand evidence that at least in the eyes of DPW, all streets are treated equally. The ride along ended following a brief delay as the town car became stuck on lesser plowed road, but trucks arrived soon after to clear the way.

It’s all part of a hard fought effort to keep roads in North Smithfield safe, even in the worst of storms, which will continue into spring.

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