THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Snowstorm slips into Boston area; rush hour turns into longer mess

Traffic was at a standstill on Route 9 west in Newton during the evening commute. Traffic was at a standstill on Route 9 west in Newton during the evening commute. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By John M. Guilfoil and Martin Finucane
Globe Staff / December 21, 2010

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Boston and neighboring communities were caught by surprise yesterday as a storm system that was forecast to move out of the area suddenly reversed course, dumping several inches of snow, causing more than 100 mostly minor accidents, and snarling traffic through rush hour and late into the evening.

Commuters in and around Boston reported long delays in their evening commutes, in many cases leaving them stopped in traffic or barely moving for an hour or more. At Logan Airport, aviation officials reported delays of up to a half hour on many flights.

Forecasters said as much as 4 inches of snow was expected to accumulate in Boston by this morning.

Across the region, the storm blindsided residents and municipal officials alike. A top Boston public works official said the department was caught off guard by the change in the weather in the afternoon, leading to a delay in some streets being salted during the slippery commute.

Josh Wilson, 32, a photographer from Stoughton, got in the car about 2 p.m. with his wife, Maura, for a trip to take pictures at Walden Pond in Concord. They got as far as Canton, one town over, before the conditions and traffic forced them to divert to a restaurant for a late lunch.

On the trip home, the 3-mile journey from the 99 Restaurant to their home took two hours and 15 minutes.

“It was literally a parking lot, and we just sat on Route 138 for two hours just to get from Canton to the Shaw’s less than 3 miles away,’’ Wilson said. “There were no accidents. People were just spinning off the roads. The roads were horrendous. I’ve never seen anything like it.’’

Elmo Baldassari, Boston’s deputy commissioner of public works, said the department was surprised by a change in the National Weather Service forecast. He said the forecast had originally called for “light flurries,’’ but then turned into a “coating to half an inch of snow’’ at 3 p.m. By 7 p.m., the forecast called for up to 3 inches.

Some public works trucks went out at 1 p.m. to treat bridges and hills that normally get icy first. Later in the afternoon, as conditions worsened, the department scrambled to mobilize extra crews, along with some contracted equipment, to try to get ahead of rush-hour traffic. But some crews “got locked up in traffic with everyone trying to get home,’’ Baldassari said.

Shortly after 6 p.m., he said, the city had more than 100 trucks salting the streets. But by then, about 100 accidents had been reported, police said.

“There are multiple multiple-car accidents and cars getting stuck across the city,’’ said David Estrada, a police spokesman. “It’s all over the city.’’

Meteorologists blamed an unusual jet stream pattern. “The [storm] systems come up off the coast, and usually they’re caught in the jet stream and keep flowing out to the mid-Atlantic,’’ said Bill Simpson of the National Weather Service in Taunton. “But in this case, it stalled for a day and looped back.’’

Motorists slid into accidents yesterday on snow-slicked roadways around Eastern Massachusetts, but no fatalities were reported, State Police said.

A Boston Fire Department ladder truck was responding to a multiple-vehicle accident about 7 p.m. when it slid on Kilsyth Road and struck another car. No one was hurt, but both vehicles were damaged, said Steve MacDonald, a Fire Department spokesman.

Several Boston public schools buses were delayed by an average of more than an hour as road conditions worsened yesterday afternoon, said Matthew Wilder, a spokesman.

As of 11 p.m. yesterday, Gloucester and Sandwich announced that public schools will be closed today, according to WBZ-TV. Scituate public schools will have a two-hour delay.

The snow was not expected to taper off until 5 a.m., Simpson said.

Elsewhere, trouble spots included the intersection of Route 213 and Interstate 495 in Methuen, the intersection of I-495 and Interstate 95 in Mansfield, the intersection of Route 128 and I-95 in the Peabody-Danvers area, and I-495 in the Merrimack Valley, a State Police spokesman said.

The snow fell more heavily and posed bigger problems on the South Shore and the Cape. Chatham registered a foot of snow at 10:22 p.m. yesterday. The Weather Service warned that the wet snow, combined with gusty north winds, could bring down tree branches and power lines in Barnstable County.

Quincy police responded to about 40 calls reporting minor snow-related accidents by 3 p.m., with most involving cars sliding into each other on slick roads, Sergeant Richard Gilmore said.

“It’s been crazy,’’ he said. “The phones have been ringing off the hook.’’

In Kingston, a school bus was sideswiped by a car sliding on an icy road, the Fire Department said. The bus was dropping off about 15 students at Landing Road and Maple Street about 2:30 p.m. when a car turned the corner too quickly, said Deputy Fire Chief Mark Douglass.

No one was injured, and the students were released into the custody of a school official, he said.

David Balerna, owner of Midway Café in Jamaica Plain, said that the snow made his seven-minute commute yesterday take 47 minutes. “I actually called the city of Boston today and said, ‘What’s it going to take for you people to realize that the roads out here are like a skating rink?’ ’’ he said.

Balerna, who was tending bar last night, said the conditions hurt his business, and patrons who did make the trek out to the Washington Street establishment had horror stories to tell.

One patron, Susan Shannon, a nurse, said she saw an MBTA bus strike a parked car on South Huntington Avenue earlier that afternoon. No one was hurt, but the accident blocked the busy artery.

“It took me an hour and a half to go less than 2 miles,’’ she said “It’s out of control out there. I mean they should have been salting beforehand.’’

Shannon said she called the mayor’s office and was told that trucks were out salting, but she did not see any until after 7 p.m.

“We’re a New England city,’’ she said. “We’re supposed to be used to snow.’’

Globe correspondents L. Finch, Neal J. Riley, Taylor S. Gearhart, and Vivian Ho contributed to this report.

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