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Key roads reopen on Long Island; many vehicles still stuck after snowstorm

Cars are stuck on Route 25 in Lake

Cars are stuck on Route 25 in Lake Grove after a snowstorm dumped 30 inches on some spots of Long Island. (Feb. 9, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Ed Betz

The Long Island Expressway reopened after being closed in parts of Suffolk because of the snowstorm, county police said Saturday night. But the on and off ramps are in “terrible” condition, a police spokeswoman said, urging motorists to stay off the expressway.

Authorities plan to re-close the expressway all day Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., from Exit 57 to Exit 73 for snow removal, the spokeswoman said.

Road crews reinforced by the state will labor through the weekend, if not longer, to dig out highways and secondary routes after the record-shattering blizzard dumped as much as 33 inches of snow on Long Island.

Suffolk County was hardest hit by the storm. Even as Gov. Andrew M.Cuomo diverted 135 snow plows from upstate to Suffolk and local work crews worked around the clock, officials said it was unclear how long it would take to clear secondary town and village roads.

"People need to understand there's a lot of snow out there," Cuomo said Saturday at a news conference at a Department of Transportation facility in Melville. "You have a historic amount of snowfall, it doesn't go away in a matter of minutes."

The blizzard struck with such ferocity Friday night that hundreds of motorists were marooned along highways and local roads that quickly became impassable -- with many stuck until well after daybreak Saturday. Air National Guard Members based in Westhampton used snowmobiles and Humvees to rescue 20 of them.

"The snow just swallowed them up," said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone at a news conference Saturday afternoon with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. "I've never seen anything like this one."

About 50 vehicles, including 18-wheelers, littered Route 347 outside the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove through the night. Around 9 a.m. Saturday, firefighters from the Nesconset and St. James departments arrived, knocking on windows to check if motorists were OK.

By Saturday night, the Long Island Expressway, once a virtual snow-covered parking lot, was reopened to traffic. But state Department of Transportation officials said they will close the 27-mile segment of the expressway from Exit 57 eastward from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday to complete clearing the snow.

Suffolk officials said all county roads -- with the exception of County Road 83 -- were passable.

New York City and Nassau County, which fared better than Suffolk, pledged additional crews and equipment to augment the cleanup efforts.

Bellone described the storm as "unlike anything we've ever seen." Its intensity led so many commuters to get stuck on their way back home from work Friday evening.

"If this storm had occurred two hours later, the hundreds of people who were stranded would have made it home," he said, defending the state's call not to close roadways sooner.

State roads were reopened as of 2:30 p.m. with the exception of eastbound lanes of the Southern_State_Parkway at Exit 39 due to an accident, State Police said.

But on other stretches of roadway, vehicles remained stuck as tow trucks and plows maneuvered their way through thick ice-packed snow.

In other parts of Suffolk, firefighters were called to help motorists who had been trapped in their cars all night, and others complained about long waits when they called 911 for help.

Officials with Cuomo's office said Saturday that a news conference held Thursday specifically warned the public to stay off roads and stay home from work or leave early Friday.

"People have been stranded in their vehicles," Cuomo said at an earlier news conference. "That was a complication of dealing with the snow."

Snow removal equipment from outside Suffolk is on the way to assist, Cuomo said. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered equipment, Cuomo said.

The governor urged Long Islanders to "stay home unless you have urgent business to be on the roads."

No serious injuries from the storm were reported on roadways during the storm, but there were notable incidents, including a sheriff's bus that got stuck on the Long Island Expressway as it drove prisoners from court to the Riverhead jail.

Snow snarls were a common sight, especially in eastern Suffolk.

Edward Schneyer, director of Suffolk's emergency preparedness, said front-end loaders and payloaders were removing snow in a "zigzag" around empty cars. That will pave the way for plows to push remaining snow to the roadside and for tow trucks to come in to remove cars, he said.

"It's going to take some time to get these roads clear because some areas of the county have really high accumulations, and they've still got some blowing snow," Schneyer said early Saturday. "It's a wet, heavy snow, so it's difficult to move."

In Huntington, officials had closed all roads to traffic other than emergency vehicles by noon Saturday.

One of the most impassable areas Saturday was County Road 83 in the Farmingville area, where 150 motorists abandoned their cars overnight between Granny and Mooney Pond roads, Schneyer said. The vehicles could not make it up the road, so stranded drivers were taken to local fire departments or to Brookhaven Town Hall, which was turned into a warming center.

"In either direction that you try to approach, it's uphill," Schneyer said. "Plows have a tough time on level ground, so when they're going uphill it's going to be even more difficult."

Many people never made it home after being stuck in their cars for seven hours or more. Nearly 30 vehicles were spread across a section of Route 347 and New Moriches Road in the Lake Grove area, a Suffolk police spokesman said. The thick snow made the normally bustling four-lane road near Smith Haven Mall impassable and large snowdrifts continued to pile up.

As the major roadways became off-limits, many motorists were funneled to secondary roads, where they were trapped by traffic jams.

A Suffolk sheriff's bus taking inmates from Central Islip court to Riverhead jail got stuck about 10 p.m. Friday in Islandia as it tried to get onto the LIE from the service road, said Michael Sharkey, chief of staff for the sheriff's office.

"There's a hill, and they didn't get up the grade," he said.

Multiple sheriff's units were sent to secure the scene as attempts to move the bus stretched past 1:30 a.m. Saturday, authorities said. Garage personnel also were dispatched to get the bus moving, Sharkey said, and vans were on their way in case the inmates needed to be transferred.

With Bill Bleyer, Bart Jones, Sid Cassese, Alfonso A. Castillo, Sarah Crichton, Gary Dymski, Mark Harrington, Keith Herbert, Patricia Kitchen, Paul LaRocco, Yancey Roy and Patrick Whittle.

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