Christmas Eve Storm Foreshadowed Epic Winter Across New York State

Mark Hoffman

George Nealon, DPW commissioner — Albany County, has led the fight against snow and ice and sleet for 25 years, but he can’t recall a worse winter than 2002-3.

“We average about 65 inches of snow a year. So far, we are up around 100 inches,” said Nealon.

In other words, even NBA All-Star center Yao Ming, who towers out at almost 7 1/2 feet tall, would be in over his head!

“The New York State Thruway was closed Christmas Eve. That was extraordinary. I don’t ever recall that happening. I remember working that night. There were no vehicles on the road. No lights. I never saw anything like it and I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” said Nealon.

The Christmas storm, coupled with another 20-inch plus storm the first week in January, marked the first time since the legendary Blizzard of 1888 that Albany saw two 20-inch storms in the same winter.

“The snow was coming down so intensely that even four-wheel drive vehicles were having a difficult time. We were lucky it was a holiday and that the general public wasn’t traveling,” said Nealon. “Our guys worked 30 to 35 hours straight. The overtime is spent. All our other resources are spent. Spring can’t come fast enough.”

Other DPW commissioners around the state mirrored the experiences of Nealon in Albany County, particularly those situated near the Thruway.

President Bush recently declared that the White House will send federal funding to help offset the costs of the Christmas and Jan. 3-4 snowstorm.

President Bush’s decision will provide money to the state and 17 counties most affected by the storms. FEMA will provide aid for four days of snow-related costs to the following counties: Albany, Chenango. Columbia, Delaware, Greene, Herkimer, Montgomery, Otsego, Schenectady, Sullivan, and Ulster. Assistance will go to the following counties for two days of costs: Broome, Fulton, Oneida, Orange, Saratoga, and Schoharie.

Michael Cerminaro, DPW commissioner for the City of Utica, doesn’t even want to talk about the storm anymore.

“We had a streak going here where it snowed for 38 straight days. We had a one- day reprieve and then it started back up again. That is not an exaggeration. That has to be a record,” said Cerminaro.

The snow has weighed heavy … not just on roofs, but on budgets and personnel.

“Our budget runs from April 1 through March 31. We are already over budget,” said Cerminaro. “Our overtime budget is over as well. The repair account will soon be at its limit.”

Utica’s biggest problem was not necessarily the snow but the abandoned cars that choked up the narrow streets of the old city.

“Our plows couldn’t make it up the secondary streets because of the abandoned cars. We had to clear out abandoned cars before we plowed,” said Cerminaro.

“I have lived in Utica my whole life and this is the worst winter since 1966. The streets are narrow from the get go. Where do you put all the snow? We have to physically remove it from the street; you can’t wing it or shelf it. We have loaders and trucks hauling it away to wherever we can. The piles are ungodly high … at least 20 feet high,” Cerminaro added.

Cerminaro, who took the post as Utica DPW commissioner just this past August said the frequency of the storms, combined with the frigid temperatures, was a double whammy.

“Whether it’s six or eight inches, or half-inch or a foot … it still means the same thing. We still have to send out salters and plows. The cold snap helps put ruts in the road. The temperatures are so cold that the salt has a hard time working. Refreezing could cause ruts. We started hitting the limits in our budget in February. We still have all of March left in the fiscal year,” Cerminaro pointed out.

Thomas DeJulio, deputy county engineer — Rensselaer County, predicted another record year in inches of snow recorded and dollars spent removing it.

“It started snowing early this year back in November. It had all the feelings of a bad winter. Sure enough, I was right. So far, we have 94 inches. The normal amount is 62. The record is 112 inches. We are going to beat that. March is a severe month for snow,” said DeJulio.

He said the storms have taken their toll … on people and plows.

“The equipment is getting tired. The mechanics are working hard at keeping the snow plows and plow trucks in shape for the last hurrah in March. Our people also are tired. Every holiday and every weekend it has been snowing. They probably haven’t had two days off in a row in months,” DeJulio said.

DeJulio held out hope for an early and lasting thaw and spring.

“Our guys don’t want to see any more snow. When you consider the severity of the winter, chances are we’ll have an early spring. What more can winter give us? It can’t give us much more,” said DeJulio, optimistically.

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