PAWTUCKET — With ears still ringing from angry constituents’ phone calls, the City Council convened a meeting of its Snow Removal Committee on Tuesday night at City Hall.
Councilors Jean Philippe Barros, David Moran, Albert Vitali, Terry Mercer and Larry Tetreault attended. Most of the other key officials were there: Director of Administration/Public Safety Director Tony Pires, Public Works Director Lance Hill, Emergency Management Director Normand Menard, Highway Supervisor Norm Lamoureux, Police Chief Paul King and Fire Chief William Sisson.
So, too were a dozen or so of the city DPW workers who had manned the plows during the blizzard called Nemo and the days that followed. Several took the opportunity to defend the plowing job and express their views about what transpired.
The DPW workers’ appearance at the meeting was a surprise to their boss, Hill, who took the time to praise them for their efforts. He said their presence showed the “dedication you have for the city” and noted that many in the room had spent “50, 60, even 70 hours straight on the clock” during the storm and its aftermath.
“This is not a session to complain about the drivers,” Barros told the workers. “Our concern is about how this snow removal process happened and how do we correct it going forward.”
Director of Administration Tony Pires acknowledged that the councilors received hundreds of phone calls about the plowing and clean-up efforts. However, he called the blizzard “an extremely challenging storm, like ’78,” and said he didn’t think it was a matter of either planning or performance that needed to be addressed. He said the men and women on the city plows did “phenomenal work” and the storm just “beat us despite our best efforts.”
Pires did say that given the city’s older plow vehicles and lack of heavy duty equipment, he would be exploring some lease/purchase plans for the upcoming fiscal years.
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EMA Director Normand Menard outlined the procedures that were put in place in preparation for the storm, including having two senior shuttle buses ready and waiting to transport anyone without power to the state’s regional emergency center in Cumberland. However, he said it appears that no Pawtucket residents opted to go to the center.
When Councilor Albert Vitali asked why Pawtucket didn’t set up its own emergency shelter at one of the schools, Menard explained that the state now supports regional emergency shelters, rather than one in each community. If Pawtucket officials wanted to open their own, they could, but the city would be responsible for paying for it.
Council President David Moran told Pires that he thought Mayor Donald Grebien should have provided the council with an overview of the storm preparations and plans following an EMA meeting that had been held on Thursday, prior to the storm. He said that he didn’t speak to Grebien again until Saturday, and would have liked more updates, especially given the number of inquires from constituents. “Communication is the key. I wanted to know what the game plan was,” said Moran.
Pires said he couldn’t speak for Grebien (who did not attend the meeting), but noted that by Friday, when the snow actually started falling, “everyone was in a different mode” and just trying to deal with the storm.
Councilor Terry Mercer questioned if the city could have done more to be prepared, particularly given the lack of available heavy equipment. However, Hill responded that the city was “as prepared as we could be.” He said DPW utilized every piece of city equipment it had, tried to line up private vendors, asked for help from other communities and the state, and got an extra delivery of road salt the day before the storm.
Hill said the storm was “historic” and “a monster” with snow that fell hard and fast. He said it took its toll on many trucks, causing blown transmissions, two engine fires and other mechanical breakdowns.
Mercer and Moran both questioned Hill about a frequent complaint from callers: why some streets were cleaned repeatedly and down to the pavement while others in the same area remained untouched.
Hill said he followed the same color-coded route map that DPW has employed for several decades, which has 26 plow routes. He said the same prioritization is given: to cover all the main roads, all the hills and then branch out to the secondary roads. He added that the pattern was disrupted somewhat by National Grid’s need to reach certain streets where there were fallen wires and power outages.
One DPW worker who was sitting in the audience finally erupted and asked the councilors, “Were any of you out there during the storm? We got two feet of snow, that’s what happened!” He spoke of the blinding snow conditions which hampered visibility, streets blocked with electrical wires, and other safety hazards, and said he wouldn’t have changed one thing except for calling the drivers in off the road even earlier.
Another DPW worker complained that many residents had ignored the parking ban and left cars parked along both sides of some streets, making the space too narrow for plows to go down. He said the plow drivers had no choice but to abandon these streets and to try to return later.
Vitali, who said he was out in the storm doing some plowing himself, agreed that the visibility and conditions were bad. “It’s no one’s fault. But I got 300 calls from people,” he said.
Councilors also asked why the snow had been piled up so high in places and left on people’s lawns. A DPW worker said the drivers use dump trucks to remove some of the snow but then lack places to dump it. They are no longer allowed to dump snow in the river and only have Slater Park, Veterans Park and the occasional empty lot they happen to find.
In wrapping up the meeting, Moran and Barros said they think the issue still circles back to a need for better communication between the administration, department heads and the council. “If a truck goes down and an area can’t be touched, it would be good to know,” said Moran. “We could have been better answering to our constituents,” agreed Barros.