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Busy night for crews, quiet for drivers

Even emergency vehicles get stuck; this one is

Even emergency vehicles get stuck; this one is at the intersection of Willis Avenue and Jericho Turnpike in Mineola. (Dec. 27, 2010) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Despite the heavy snow and spiraling winds, it was a quiet night on Long Island roadways as neither Nassau nor Suffolk police reported any major accidents.

"Nothing serious overnight," said a Nassau County police spokesman.

One reason for reasonable calm is because roads were relatively traffic free. "Most people seemed to stay home, and that's why there was nothing serious," a Suffolk police spokeswoman said.

There was one road closure, in Smithtown, police said, where Jericho Turnpike was closed eastbound at Old Willets Path and westbound at Meadow Road.

Also, the Southern State Parkway was closed at Exits 17 and 18 for snow removal, according to the New York State Department of Transportation website.

State Police said that even though the major parkways and the Long Island Expressway are open, some places are almost impossible to navigate, particularly ramps.

"You shouldn't be on the roads right now," the spokesman said. "Unless you have to be out, stay home. Stay off the roads."

And even though road crews worked overnight trying to clear the snow, police expected roads this morning to be treacherous.

"It's still snowing and the wind is still blowing," the Nassau spokesman said.

Even before the worst of a winter storm was due to hit, highway departments borrowed trucks and equipment from other departments, threw salt on roads and readied plows. Supervisors called employees in from vacation and told some to get ready to work through the night.

They told the public what they always do: "Stay home, stay out of our way," in the words of George Woodson, Highway Department supervisor of Riverhead. And, from Philip Berdolt, commissioner of public works in Babylon: "Try and park off the street. We can't get big trucks down [to plow] when there are cars parked on either side."

Long after the blizzard hit Sunday, while many sought cover from the blowing snow and howling winds, plow drivers carried on.

"The problem is, the snow keeps coming," said Mike Donnelly, a Babylon equipment operator pressed into duty directing plow drivers to trouble spots.

"You're trying to keep up, but you have to do it at a pace that's not going to make you crazy," said Donnelly Sunday night. 'Slow and easy wins the race,' is what I tell my guys."

At the Ocanee East Diner in Islip, employee Gus Tsiorvas said the restaurant would stay open until 2 a.m. Monday. He said a good portion of his late-night clientele was hungry plowers. At about 11 p.m. Sunday, Tsiorvas said close to 50 drivers had stopped in throughout the night for a quick dinner.

Early yesterday afternoon, most departments focused efforts on throwing down salt to minimize the amount of ice that would form on roads; later, as snow began to accumulate, they plowed - and, more than likely, will plow again, and again. "We have 537 miles of road but we're doing three, four passes on some roads," Berdolt said.

In Hempstead, Supervisor Kate Murray said 300 employees are on snow detail for what she said could be 24 straight hours of plowing the town's 1,200 miles of roads.

Eileen Peters, a spokeswoman at the state Department of Transportation, said the state has 5,300 lane-miles of Long Island highway. On major roads, teams of up to five trucks were plowing in staggered or "echelon" formation, shunting massive amounts of snow onto road shoulders.

In the past, Peters said, some drivers have tailgated or attempted to pass the snow plows. "The worst thing in the world to do is to try and pass a snow plow," she said. In an accident, she said, the driver in the multi-ton truck with a steel plow in front isn't going to get hurt; you are.

Babylon doesn't have the manpower of some of the larger towns and state departments, so it made an "all-in" call for all employees, as well as hiring 26 contractors to clear roads. Some of those employees - Berdolt and his deputy included - were planning to sleep on air mattresses on the office floor overnight - if they got to sleep at all.

Besides the contractors' vehicles, the town has mustered 120 of its own for snow-clearing duties. "That includes pickups and Jeeps," Berdolt said. "Anything we can put a plow on, we do."

That includes his own car.

Woodson, in Riverhead, was on the road when a reporter reached him at about 4 p.m. He said most of his men were on the road as well, plowing in what he described as near white-out conditions. His strategy was to keep main roads open and work smaller roads as police and fire rescue require. But the wind and the town's flat farmland are working against his men: "You can plow a road like Sound Avenue, go one end to the other," he said, "and by the time you're done, it's like you didn't even do it."

Islip may well be the only town headed by a man who used to move snow for a living: Philip Nolan, who used to work for Aero Snow Removal, a company that specializes in clearing airport runways. With 1,100 miles of road to work, he said, it was critical not to fall behind. By 4 p.m., 275 pieces of equipment had thrown close to 400 tons of salt, and were moving into plow phase. "At two to three inches, you can plow at 30 mph," he said. "But at six to eight inches, you can't move at all."

With Gary Dymski

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