This Time, The Word Got Out. Mostly

Lucy Gellman PhotoWhen Lynwood Dorsey turned onto Frances Hunter Drive Wednesday, he didn’t have to lower his plow and shift gears to keep his truck from slipping — unlike the last time a storm hit New Haven.

He didn’t have to slow down and implore people to remove their cars from the odd side of the road. And no one asked him to plow them out—because the street was fairly empty, clean, and peaceful.

Dorsey’s trip to Frances Hunter Drive was different when a Feb. 10 snowstorm dumped close over a foot of snow on New Haven and left many of the city’s narrow streets—on which people had left their cars parked illegally—impassable. During that snowfall, Dorsey found himself working around the clock, making four passes at Frances Hunter and similar narrow streets before calling in backup.

New Haven continues to have its share of problems digging out of Superstorm Stella, which dumped 10 inches of snow on the city and then rain that turned into treacherous ice and heavy boulders. The ice is proving harder to clear than even bigger mounds of snow would have been.

And Wednesday afternoon the city fielded complaints from alders about cars being towed from school parking lots as crews prepared the lots for the resumption of classes Thursday morning. Nine cars were towed from school lots; because of confusion over the noon deadline to move them, the city waived the towing and ticket fees.

But overall officials said compliance with, and enforcement of, a citywide parking ban changed the snow-clearing job for the better this time around, enabling plows to get at narrow streets it couldn’t last month.

Dorsey, head of the Department of Public Works’s Street Division, saw that change across several of New Haven’s 836 streets on Wednesday morning, as he and Public Works crews continued to plow and salt into the afternoon. Having worked from 3 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Tuesday and 5 a.m. onward on Wednesday, Dorsey said he was “feeling the storm.” But he said he thinks the city has done a better job of communicating parking bans and clearing streets than it did a month ago—and that’s going a long way.

City officials worked hard to get out the message about the parking ban, which is still in effect until 6 a.m. Thursday. Cars may not be parked on downtown streets or along emergency routes, or on the odd side of residential neighborhood streets. In addition to posting signs and sending email and phone blasts and working through alders and the media to spread the word, the city tagged and towed 140 cars the night after the storm and 93 the night before.

“It’s because of the traffic signs,” Dorsey said as he drove down State Street toward East Rock, referencing red and white fliers announcing the parking ban that had gone up Monday afternoon.

Now his biggest battle was independent contractors—mostly hired by apartment management across the city, he guessed—pushing plowed snow back into the middle of the street. “It’s a constant battle,” he said. “But it’s been better this time around.”

He could see it on display, he said, as he turned smoothly from State onto Mechanic Street. As he drove, he pointed to trees and signposts where the red text of parking ban signs still popped against the white snow. Those signs had kept the cars off the odd side of the street.

“See this? he said, pointing to packed feet of plowed snow that was now pushed to the sides of the street, going over the curbs and crowding the sidewalks. “We’re going to get a snowblower in there to clear it out,” he said. All smooth sailing.

Until he turned from Mechanic onto Eagle.

A brown-red van sat on the odd side of the street, against a signpost where a parking ban announcement had been ripped away. The red and white top of the paper still flapped a little in the breeze. No owner was in sight.

On the other side of the street, Nicole Diez was trying to get her car out of the snow, using her bare hands to remove icy snow boulders from around her tires and toss them toward the sidewalk. Her sons Azarel and Alistair watched from the backseat.

Dorsey tapped on his horn, a sharp eeeee filling the air. The woman shook her head and came closer. “It won’t move,” she said to him.

Dorsey looked at the car. “I would plow it out to get through, but I’m worried about hitting the car,” he said.

Diez tried to start the car again, her tires spinning as she turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. Behind Dorsey, the driver of a black SUV trying to get through tapped on the horn.

Dorsey decided to risk it. Diez moved to the side, and watched him work.

“Thank you!” she cheered as the plow cleared a few snow boulders by the side of her car. Dorsey nodded, and headed toward his next stop on Nicoll.

In East Rock, Dorsey found that Monday’s parking-ban notices had by and large worked. Streets that he and Public Works’s Operations Chief Jeff Pescosolido had recognized as problem areas in the last storm—Nicoll, Eagle, Nash, Mechanic, Avon, Pleasant and Cottage especially—were passable, with snow-blowing help expected later in the day. That wasn’t quite as soon as Dorsey hoped, he said,  but the snowblower had been left out overnight, and its chute was filled with a solid block of ice. It would have to wait. He drove toward East Rock Park, checking for a place to dump snow, before looping around to Dixwell.

There, he said, he wanted to check out a few streets around the Monterrey housing development that had presented problems for public works in February. Last month, residents’ failure to heed the parking pan, coupled with narrow streets, high, heavy, snow, and late tagging and towing efforts. had left Dorsey and other plow drivers unable to get to certain streets. He’d made the loop from Dixwell Avenue down Frances Hunter, up Ashmun, and back down Dixwell four times, braking hard and shifting into low gear as he slid in the street. On Wednesday, it was all clear.

“The sun is really working in our favor,” he said as he headed back toward Newhallville, where Alder Delphine Clyburn and city emergency management chief Rick Fontana had reported “mashed potato”-like mounds of snow and ice that were making it difficult for plows to pass through, and residents to dig themselves out.

Driving down Winchester Avenue toward Bassett Street, Dorsey pressed on his horn and pulled out the microphone connected to a loudspeaker. A car was parked in the middle of the street, its blinkers on, with no one to claim it. “You cannot be parked on the odd side of the street,” he announced.

No one stepped forward for the car.

Dorsey turned onto Bassett and headed toward Shelton Avenue, one of the side streets that were reported as “mashed potato” problem areas late last night into this morning. He drove past Watson and Goodrich, slowing down to check them as he passed. Turning onto Dixwell, he checked out Brewster, Ivy and Hazel Streets. There were cars on the even side, still half-buried under bouldery, mashed-looking snow.

“But it’s passable,” he said. “They’re all passable.”

“This is New England,” he added. “People have lived here for years. You would think that they’d be ready for the snow by now.”

The View From Newhallville

Alder Clyburn had a different take on how Newhallville was faring. She said she fielded frantic calls from constituents, many of whom are elderly and struggle with the snow, all Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Her constituents were concerned about Starr, Lilac, Ivy, Reed and Butler Streets, she said. They’d followed the parking ban, many doubling up on driveways and parking in Lincoln-Bassett School’s parking lot. Now their cars were buried in nearly-solid snow, and they couldn’t dig themselves out.

As noon hit, she said that she was getting calls from residents whose cars were being towed at Lincoln-Bassett. They hadn’t realized that the lot parking ended at noon on Wednesday. Now they were freaking out.

“We’ve got to come up with a better plan,” she said. “Those people on the right side, following the travel ban—they’re stuck. Some of those streets are not passable. You can’t just leave them like this. They [crews] need to come back and clean up, and help on the even side of the street.”

“I can say this,” she added. “Some of the roads are much better than when I left my job at 11:30 last night. I was so frightened driving. But we got a lot of work to do.”

The city communicated with citizens about the need to move cars from school lots through the “Everbridge” system, through which people sign up to receive text messages and phone calls about emergency information. City emergency management chief Rick Fontana said Wednesday’s confusion demonstrated the need for more people to sign up. Still, he said, the city now has over 32,000 people on the system getting the information.

Schools operations chief Will Clark said his crews helped people dig out their cars when the noon deadline arrived. Transit chief Doug Hausladen said that nine cars ended up being towed as of 5 p.m. After an outcry from alders, the city made the call to waive the fees.

Next time around the city should continue finding ways to communicate better about evolving rules during storms, Mayor Toni Harp said at a 4 p.m. storm briefing at the Emergency Operations Center at 200 Orange St. She recommended using sound trucks in some neighborhoods to reinforce messages going out through Everbridge and through alders’ constituent email networks.

Paul Bass contributed reporting.

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posted by: robn on March 15, 2017  5:46pm

“This is New England,” he added. “People have lived here for years. You would think think that they’d be ready for the snow by now.”

posted by: Greg-Morehead on March 16, 2017  1:58am

For real Mr Dorsey..?

Myself and alot of other homeowners were out during the day around 6pm shoveling and digging out our driveways etc and everything was fine. Then at 11pm, I hear snow plows coming down the street. I come outside on my porch to see 2 plows getting closer to the sidewalk and pushing the snow covering the driveways of not just mine, but other homeowners on the block.
My question to you is, why couldn’t the plow trucks get close like that during the day when you guys first came down Frances hunter Drive and ONLY plowed a single lane? Not make things wider AFTER the homeowners thought they were through clearing their driveway…

Its the same thing EVERY snow storm. This is just rediculous, you would think snow plowing would be a no brainer for some and how to do it correctly.. I cannot applaud this story with the work that was/wasn’t done. I’m not just speaking for me, but for other homeowners on my block..
If you would like to speak to me directly Mr Dorsey, I live on Frances Hunter Dr. I think you know which house..(sometimes I think I am targeted with the snow being pushed back in my driveway).

posted by: southwest on March 16, 2017  8:34am

The churches and other organizations in the communities should pass the word on when a snow storm is coming!!

posted by: dew21 on March 16, 2017  11:42am

This is laughable! Yes, the communication from the city was great and gave ample time to get cars moved if people were home and able to move them.  However, the streets in East Rock that see the most traffic volume are no where near passable for 2-way traffic! Humphrey, Trumbull, & Orange are a disaster in most places with people now parking into the travel lanes or unable to make right turns due to huge mounds of snow packed up at corners. These are major access routes to Yale, and other businesses and we have to wait to pass one at a time. Why were people towed in other neighborhoods, but residents in East Rock and Wooster Square didn’t get towed, or not in the same numbers?

posted by: 32knot on March 16, 2017  12:03pm

We should all be careful when we try to pat ourselves on the back. the plowing on Union Ave in front of High School in the Community is terrible. on the curve by Habitat for Humanity the plows missed the entire right lane, you can just see the yellow lines on the edge of the snow.  Do the plow operators drive the streets before it snows to see the geometry, to locate the curbs, width of the street??  The contractor that plows in Morris Cove did a terrible job!!!  Are there any after event debriefings with the drivers to point out problem areas and successes??

as for not parking in driveways when available, people are probably tired of having their driveways plowed in after making the effort to dig out. A little training for the drivers will minimize that problem, unless the plow drivers just don’t care: which I suspect in most cases. I have seen plow drivers alter the angle of the plow to minimize throwing snow on sidewalks and keep driveway openings mostly clear and I have watched other drivers purposely plow large piles onto all four corners of an intersection. All in all I would rank the majority of plow drivers in New Haven below in the bottom half of skillful drivers in New England.

posted by: westville man on March 16, 2017  1:29pm

32knot-  spot on   Take a walk around Westville- some corner snow piles are literally 3’ or more high.  Many corners are impassable on foot and are not due to the homeowners neglect.  I have called and complained about the speed of the plows- throwing snow onto the sidewalks. Pissy and dismissive answers about how fast they need to go to clear snow is what i got.