Forecasters expect ‘a big snow event,’ but will it be historic?

Posted Feb. 07, 2013, at 12:14 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 08, 2013, at 11:02 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine, — Meteorologists are calling for more than a foot of snow and wind gusts as high as 65 mph in a winter storm expected to slam Maine on Friday.

But a Portland historian said the nor’easter will have to bring more than that if it’s going to warrant consideration among the city’s all-time great storms. Former state lawmaker and Southern Maine Community College history instructor Herbert Adams said storms of bygone eras froze Portland Harbor solid and pulled famous ships under the sea.

In terms of the severity predicted for Friday, a National Weather Service meteorologist said Thursday that there’s a greater than 80 percent chance that forecasts about a massive Friday snowstorm will be spot-on.

“We’re at the point where all the models are doing the same thing, and they’re all giving us a big snow event,” said Tom Hawley, a National Weather Service meteorologist in the agency’s Gray office. “While there’s still a chance it could bob or weave one way or the other and give us a different forecast, I’d say there’s less than a 20 percent chance of that happening.”

High temperatures Friday are forecast to be in the low to mid-20s, he said, with overnight temperatures dipping to about 15 degrees. Saturday will be a bit colder, with highs reaching 20, Hawley said. Friday winds are expected to reach 20 mph, picking up to between 25 and 35 mph overnight and into Saturday, with gusts in coastal areas forecast to whip through at speeds of 65 mph.

“It still looks like snow starting in Portland before noon tomorrow, getting heavy tomorrow night and ending about noon on Saturday,” Hawley said. “It still looks like about a foot of snow in Portland, maybe more, and quite windy, so a lot of blowing and drifting.”

Snow is expected in Bangor around midday, with a total of 14 to 18 inches likely to fall through Saturday, according to weather service meteorologist Paul Fitzsimmons.

The storm is expected to hit Maine almost 35 years to the day after the famed blizzard of 1978, which brought more than 2 feet of snow to southern parts of New England, killing nearly 100 people and causing $1.85 billion in damage in today’s dollar value.

That storm, which blasted Boston, Providence, R.I., and Atlantic City, N.J., with historic levels of snow, was less catastrophic in Maine, where residents saw 7.9 inches accumulate, Hawley said.

Portland also escaped the worst of it during the Great Blizzard of 1888, historian Adams told the BDN on Thursday, receiving about 13 inches of snow when more southerly cities including New York were walloped.

The Portland area’s biggest snowstorm came on Jan. 17-18 of 1979, totaling 27.1 inches, 24.4 inches of which fell in a 24-hour period, Hawley said.

That and other storms of previous centuries brought conditions that seem impossible to imagine today, Adams said.

“In 1917, there was so much snow and it was so cold, Portland Harbor was frozen from Portland to Peaks Island, and for the first time people could drive cars — which were still new at the time — from the mainland all the way to the island,” he said.

Nearly 165 years earlier, in 1752, the notable Rev. Thomas Smith wrote in his diary that he “rode in his sleigh from Portland all the way to North Yarmouth and then to Brunswick,” Adams said.

“He went over Harraseeket Bay on a horse-drawn sleigh,” he said.

But those heavy snowfalls and deep freezes still didn’t compare to one mighty storm in the late 19th century, said Adams.

“The greatest single storm that struck Portland — aside from just snow, and considering rain, wind and everything else — was the great gale of Nov. 27, 1898. It was the incredible coastal storm that sank the steamer S.S. Portland,” he said.

“[The ship] was coming home from Boston right around Thanksgiving that year, and sailed into one of the largest recorded storms in the history of record keeping, and the ship went down with all hands, all crew and all passengers,” Adams continued. “[That storm] changed the course of coastal rivers, wiped out islands in Massachusetts — barrier islands were just obliterated — and blockaded trains with rain and snow. Debris washed ashore for weeks.”

The historian said there was no exact record of how many people died in the sinking of the S.S. Portland because the only occupancy list was on board at the time. In part because of that tragedy, he said, mariners began implementing policies of leaving ledgers at both their departure and intended arrival sites.

Bangor’s record snowfall for a 24-hour period came on Dec. 30, 1962 when 25.5 inches blanketed the Queen City, according to weather service meteorologist Corey Bogel. Four more inches fell on Dec. 31, setting the two-day record for the city.

A storm that dumped 28.6 inches on Caribou in 24 hours occurred March 14, 1984, setting the record for the city. Another quarter inch on March 15 that year set the two-day mark.

Eastport’s one-day snowfall record was set Jan. 3, 2010, when 22 inches fell. Its biggest two-day accumulation occurred Jan. 28-29, 1952, when 25.7 inches was recorded, Bogel said.

On Friday and Saturday, Mainers may face a significant amount of shoveling, bad driving conditions and potential power outages in comparison, meteorologists say.

In anticipation of potential outages, crews from New Brunswick have been driving through Maine to supplement power company crews and equipment.

“We certainly have talked to some other contractors and we do know some utilities in southern New England are very quick to pull the trigger on extra aid and being proactive in terms of lining up extra support, so much of the Canadian crews you see may be headed to New Hampshire and Massachusetts,” said John Carroll, Central Maine Power spokesman. “We do have some extra crews lined up already just in case.

“To my knowledge, we haven’t put any calls in for mutual aid,” said Bangor Hydro Electric Co. spokeswoman Susan Faloon. “If things go as forecast and we’re not too heavily hit, we may be the mutual aid for others.

“We’re putting out extra crews, but not as many as we did for last week’s high winds that caused so many outages.”

At least one enterprising regional business is warning tongue-in-cheek that being short of margarita mix is among the storm hardships Mainers must be wary of in 2013. Margaritas Mexican restaurants, of which there are five in Maine, are advertising $9.99 “take-home kits” — with chips, salsa, guacamole and margarita mix, but no tequila — for those expecting to be “snowbound” Friday night.

Alex Sosnowski, expert senior meteorologist with AccuWeather.com, wrote in a Thursday post that Portland will be among the hardest-hit areas in New England, with dry air feeding in from the north potentially limiting the advance of the storm into the northernmost parts of Maine.

“Some of the airlines are having some fits due to this storm,” said Bangor International Airport Director Tony Caruso. “So far, the DCA [Washington D.C. Reagan National Airport] flights have been canceled.”

Paul Bradbury, airport director for the Portland International Jetport, said most Friday morning flights are expected to depart on schedule ahead of the storm’s arrival.

He said one 6:30 a.m. Air Canada flight to Toronto has been canceled, and that JetBlue has canceled its 3:37 p.m. flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in addition to all of its Saturday flights from Portland. Bradbury said JetBlue departures to New York at 6 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. still are scheduled to take off Friday, however.

The director urged travelers to watch the jetport’s website, www.portlandjetport.org, for information about other airlines’ flights.

“My guess is other airlines will follow suit,” Bradbury said. “The good news is, all airlines have eliminated restrictions for changes, so if you can get out earlier, it might be smart to head out ahead of Saturday.”

In expectation of the nasty weather Friday night, numerous events around the state have been canceled or postponed. Some events were being rescheduled as far out as Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the Portland Public Schools moved its boys basketball game between Deering High School and Portland High School from Friday night to Thursday night. Likewise, Cheverus High School basketball games slated for Friday night — with the girls team facing Portland and the boys team squaring off against South Portland High School — were bumped back to Thursday.

Several championship events around the state in track and field, cheerleading and wrestling have been called off as well.

The Maine Principals’ Association confirmed that state championships in high school cheerleading and wrestling slated for Saturday have been postponed.

The state cheering championships will be made up at 4:30 p.m. Monday at the Bangor Auditorium, while the state wrestling meets have been pushed back to Feb. 16.

The wrestling championships originally were slated to be held at the Augusta Civic Center, but will take place at three different sites, with Class A at Sanford High School, Class B at Fryeburg Academy and Class C at Foxcroft Academy.

Saturday’s Eastern Maine Indoor Track League championships, scheduled for 4 p.m. at the University of Maine, have been postponed to Monday. Field events are scheduled to kick off at 3:45 p.m. with the running events getting under way at 4.

The Family Valentines Dance at Center Drive School in Orrington, scheduled for Saturday night, has been canceled.

On Thursday morning, organizers of the Maine Polar Dip to benefit the nonprofit Camp Sunshine, scheduled for Saturday at the East End Beach in Portland, announced it has been postponed until March 2.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife announced Friday that services in remembrance of Warden Maj. Gregory Sanborn have been postponed because of the weather.

Calling hours now will be held from 4 until 6 p.m. and from 7 until 9 p.m.

Sunday. The celebration of life ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. Monday. Both will be held at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro.

The Legislature has called off all public hearings and committee business scheduled for Friday.

In Waldo County, which officials expected to be hit with gusty winds and lots of snow, people worked Thursday to batten down their hatches — in some cases, literally.

Jon Thurston, the RSU 20 agricultural coordinator, spent part of the day strapping ropes over the top of the greenhouse at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast because last week’s last big windstorm ripped off some of the heavy plastic panels on the roof.

“The wind was so violent, it snapped the ropes,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to getting an insulating blanket of snow on the greenhouse.

Waldo County Emergency Management Agency Director Dale Rowley said he and others were getting ready for the nor’easter by getting needed equipment inside and under cover, contacting places such as Waldo County General Hospital and the American Red Cross and making sure the generators were running. He said if the county had to open up a shelter, it likely would be the middle school in Belfast.

According to Rowley, the storm will fall on the anniversary of the founding of the Boy Scouts of America, so he was referring to it as the “Be Prepared” storm after the organization’s motto.

“Be prepared for power outages, how you’re going to heat your home,” he said. “You never know. Just be prepared.”

Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for the city of Portland, said city officials are scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon “to plan for the next two days.”

“[We’re doing] a lot of equipment checks — snowplows, sidewalk tractors, and also emergency vehicles so that we’re sure they can get through,” she said. “We will be loading salt and sand and positioning it in different areas of the city so that it’s available in satellite locations.”

Clegg added that the city is asking residents to give themselves extra travel time or avoid the roads completely during the peak of the storm.

BDN staff writers John Holyoke, Ryan McLaughlin and Abigail Curtis contributed to this report.