2005-12-15 / News

High winds wreak havoc on island during Dec. 9 storm

By Donna K. Drago

Avalon, a 30-foot sailboat, was blown ashore in Dutch Harbor during Friday’s storm. Photo by Carl Barchi Avalon, a 30-foot sailboat, was blown ashore in Dutch Harbor during Friday’s storm. Photo by Carl Barchi Power outages, fallen limbs, downed power lines, and bridge closures were some of the results of an icy wind storm that raced through the area last Friday afternoon.

Between about 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. several wind meters around the island measured wind speeds nearing hurricane force.

Keith Godena, dispatcher for the Jamestown Fire Department, said that the fire station anemometer recorded a gust of 79 miles per hour. May Munger of Conanicut Marine Services said that the highest gust measured at Ferry Wharf was 65 mph

The Newport Pell Bridge was closed in accordance with the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority’s protocol for closures due to high wind conditions.

Ken Bianchi, RITBA’s executive director, said that the anemometer at the toll plaza measured winds gusting at 70 mph at 1:30 p.m., with sustained winds hovering at 50 mph, and the Rhode Island State Police were called and asked to send cruisers for each end of the bridge as a precaution in the event that the bridge needed to be shut down, Bianchi said.

A tree was blown across Narragansett Avenue at West Ferry Friday afternoon. Photo by Victor Richardson A tree was blown across Narragansett Avenue at West Ferry Friday afternoon. Photo by Victor Richardson An engineer was sent to take readings at the center span, Bianchi said, and saw that the 25-foot tall light poles “were severely swaying” in the high winds. “We closed the bridge at 2:04,” Bianchi said.

“We were very pleased with the quick assistance” of the state police, who implemented the closure of the bridge, and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, who alerted motorists to the situation using the DOT’s lighted message board on Route 95, Bianchi said.

Winds on the bridge were monitored several times during the closure. At 2:10 p.m. the sustained readings were at 60 to 65 mph, at 2:58 p.m. sustained winds were between 45 and 50 mph, with gusts still being measured at 70 mph, Bianchi said. By 3:30, winds had died down to 22 mph sustained, with gusts being recorded at 30 mph. “It came through very fast,” Bianchi said.

During the bridge closure, the toll plaza staff was hopping as “several hundred calls” came in from stranded motorists on their cell phones who wanted to check the status of the bridge closure, Bianchi said. “We are very thankful for the attitude and cooperation” of the motorists who “understood the severity of the situation” that led to the closure, Bianchi said.

Before re-opening the Newport Bridge, the DOT’s Portsmouth garage sent de-icing and sanding equipment to the bridge, so that when the bridge opened at 3:30 p.m., “road conditions were superior,” Bianchi said.

The Jamestown Bridge was not closed at anytime on Friday, according to Jamestown police Lieut. William Donovan, who is currently the acting police chief.

The fire department answered about 16 calls between 1:30 and 5 p.m., according to dispatcher Godena, who was on the desk for the duration of the storm. “It was pretty hectic, but manageable,” Godena said. He noted that “everyone came out to help.”

Utility poles in front of Head’s Beach on Seaside Drive were snapped off and lying across the road. At the far north end of the island, there were trees and power lines down across East Shore Road, just south of the old Jamestown Inn, Godena said.

Falling tree limbs caused the bulk of the damage to power lines on Ocean Avenue, Maple Avenue, Standish Road, and the West Ferry end of Narragansett Avenue, the dispatcher said.

Fire Chief Jim Bryer said that he went to the Jamestown schools to ask them not to release the students who walk to school. There were several limbs and power lines on the ground in the immediate vicinity, Bryer said.

“There was also about threeinches of slush” on the sidewalks, and “I didn’t want anyone to get hurt,” he said.

School Superintendent Kathy Sipala said that the school had been without power since about 1:30 p.m. When the fire chief came in to ask that the walkers be held, the schools were in the process of gathering all teachers and students in the cafeterias so that they could hear the announcements about dismissal, since the intercom and public address systems were down, she said.

After the bussed students were all dismissed, “dozens of parents” showed up to give their children rides, Sipala said, noting that by the time parents were through picking up their kids, “only eight were left without rides.”

The remaining students were then driven home, the school superintendent said.

According to Sipala, the power outage caused the phone system to quit, which worried many parents. She also said that she wants to get more reliable walkie-talkies to communicate between buildings when the power is out.

Electricity was out in most of southern Rhode Island, according to David Graves, a spokesman for National Grid.

In Jamestown, some 1,070 customers were without power from about 2:15 through the afternoon, and by 6:15 p.m. the number of customers dwindled to just 97.

Graves said that the severity of the storm was “completely unexpected in the way it developed.”

By Saturday afternoon, power had been restored to all customers, Graves said.

In Jamestown, the primary problems were due to fallen limbs and downed poles that were “shorting out circuits,” he said.

Michael Gray, Jamestown’s deputy public works director, said that the storm was “a difficult one” to manage because his crews had to perform double duty. They had to get the tree limbs out of the road before they could “get on the trucks” to put the sand down, Gray said.

There was a lot of rain that day, he said, and by mid-afternoon “the temperature just dropped,” and it all began to freeze and change to snow.

Gray said that his crews were able to get all the roads sanded by about 6 p.m. that evening.

Acting Chief Donovan said that there was only one storm-related car accident Friday afternoon on Route 138. The car slid off the road, was towed back into the roadway, and was driven off, Donovan said.

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