Highway and utility crews are bracing for a major snowstorm that could drop more than a foot of snow on some parts of the state before it moves out of the area Sunday evening.
The National Weather Service in Caribou has issued a winter storm watch for eastern, central and northern Maine, but meteorologist Ken Wallingford said Thursday afternoon that forecasters still are uncertain about the full impact of the storm.
“We are still watching it,” he said from the Caribou office. “We have a general idea about what is going to happen, but we can’t tell with 100 percent certainty just yet. We won’t know its full impact until it gets closer.”
According to the weather service, low pressure will intensify southeast of the Gulf of Maine Friday through Saturday. The low then will move back toward the coast on Sunday and could bring significant snow to the region starting Friday and continuing through the weekend.
Wallingford said the storm was predicted to spread over Down East Maine and the Bangor area Thursday evening, with light snow predicted for the first part of New Year’s Day. The storm could grow gradually through the night into Saturday morning.
“That will be the first wave of the storm,” he said, with that system leaving as much as 5 inches of snow in the northern part of the state and 4 to 8 inches in eastern and central Maine.
“That won’t be as big a deal as the second wave,” he said.
The second system, which he termed “quite unusual,” is expected to develop off Nova Scotia and should blow into the state from east to west. Most storms travel west to east. Snow should start falling Saturday afternoon and continue well into Sunday. Buffeted by high winds and blowing snow, accumulations of 8 to 12 inches are expected, he said.
“As the second system tracks in we’re going to have more snow and more wind, blowing snow and drifting,” Wallingford said. “By Monday morning we’ll be looking at a total of 12-18 inches in some areas.
“The most snow with the greatest intensity will fall late Saturday night into Sunday,” he said. “The wind is expected to pick up on Saturday night. That is when we will see more blowing and drifting, and driving will become a lot more dangerous.”
Coastal flooding is possible as there will be winds and an astronomical high tide during the weekend. Ten- to 20-knot winds out of the northeast with gusts at 35 knots and seas of 3 to 5 feet are predicted.
Forecasters are urging holiday travelers to keep a close eye on the situation.
Maine Department of Transportation Communications Director Herb Thompson said Thursday that the agency was following normal pre-storm procedures. He said drivers and other staff members have been alerted about the possibility of being called out over the holiday weekend.
“It’s a typical storm situation, and we’re ready for them all,” he said. “We have alerted staff and let them know they will be called out if needed.”
Dale Doughty, regional manager of the DOT’s Bangor office, said that in addition to regular plow truck drivers, members of crews that usually work on bridges and road signs have received additional training and could be called on to clear downed trees or fallen tree limbs if the storm is backed by serious winds.
“With limited resources we’ve been training people for other tasks,” Doughty said. “We’ve had to be more flexible. We have people to come out and run saws or excavators if necessary.”
Central Maine Power Co. spokeswoman Gail Rice said the company began planning for the storm on Thursday, preparing staff and making sure all needed vehicles are filled with fuel and equipped. Like the DOT, the company already had contacted the Maine Emergency Management Agency to ensure that all communications between all the parties were established and that all were prepared for major problems.
“We make sure all critical employees are available and ready to move out when they are needed and where they are needed most,” Rice said.
The Bangor-based Pine Tree Chapter of the American Red Cross is urging people in northern and eastern Maine to be prepared for the storm. The Pine Tree Chapter is available to assist Mainers with emergency plans and needs, and can be reached at any time by calling 941-2903.
The winter storm watch was issued Thursday for Penobscot, Piscataquis, Franklin, Hancock, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Somerset, Waldo and Washington counties for the weekend. Temperatures are predicted to range from the low 20s to the low 30s across much of the region. The winter storm watch will remain in effect from Friday afternoon through late Sunday.
In Bangor, police announced that because of the expected storm and astronomical high tides the Kenduskeag Stream East and West parking lots downtown will be closed from 6 a.m. Friday until Sunday afternoon. This includes the back lower level of the parking garage on the west side.
Residents flocked to grocery stores in Bangor and Brewer Thursday to purchase supplies ahead of the storm.
In Houlton, residents were stocking up on shovels, food and entertainment to see them through the storm.
In the parking lot of the Houlton Wal-Mart, Gail McPherson was carrying a shovel, an ice scraper and some DVDs to her car.
“I broke my shovel during the last storm,” she said Thursday afternoon. “I don’t have plans to travel this weekend, and I doubt anything good will be on television. So I decided to come out and pick up a few movies to watch.”
A short distance away at Paradis Shop ’n Save, Ann Landry of Houlton was going inside to stock up on supplies.
“I figured that I should get groceries now, because I usually pick them up on Saturday,” she said. “Now, that doesn’t look like it will be such a good time to go shopping.”
BDN writer Jen Lynds reported from Houlton, and BDN writer Walter Griffin reported from Belfast.