Blizzard hit and Martha’s Vineyard hunkered down

The Gannon and Benjamin boatyard weathered the storm on Saturday. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Compared with communities across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, Martha’s Vineyard dodged a meteorological bullet. The snow fell, but not in paralyzing amounts. Gusting winds shut down ferry service and downed wires — not unusual in winter here — and the Island was pretty much up and running again by Sunday.

A shift of a few degrees in the storm track made all the difference. The same was true of hurricane Sandy’s glancing blow in late October.

Longtime Islanders are generally prepared to hunker down in February; or they travel to warmer climates. If mild winters the past two years dimmed some memories of icy winds, driving snow, and ferry cancellations, the weekend provided a reminder.

There was plenty of warning. Public safety officials, and television meteorologists giddy with excitement in the center news cycle stage, provided advance news of a powerful blizzard and projected snow fall amounts in excess of two feet. Thursday afternoon, the National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning and said white-out conditions were expected by the Friday evening commute with “anticipated gusts up to around 60 miles per hour, resulting in blowing and drifting snow.”

Islanders prepared by gassing up and cleaning out grocery store shelves. Lines formed at gas stations and store registers.

Advance preparations

As the storm advanced, Cape Air and Peter Pan Bus cancelled Friday service. Late Thursday, Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent of Schools James Weiss announced a half day on Friday for Island schools and cancelled all weekend school activities.

As flurries began to fall Friday, most public buildings closed at noon. The Steamship Authority stopped running in the afternoon. Service between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard did not resume until Sunday morning. Tisbury and Edgartown announced on-street parking bans intended to allow public works departments to clear snow.

Oak Bluffs selectmen closed East Chop Drive as a precaution against further erosion. On Monday, portions of one lane of pavement was washed away.

Island emergency management directors issued a travel advisory to strongly urge all residents to avoid travel between 3 pm Friday and 3 pm Saturday. Governor Deval Patrick made it official when he imposed a travel ban to begin at 4 pm Friday.

With roads still mostly wet or covered with a thin layer of slush, police officials in several Island towns said they had no plans to ticket or pull drivers over for violating the ban. Instead, police appealed to business owners and drivers to use common sense if conditions worsened. And they did.

By nightfall, snow began to accumulate and winds howled. Homes across the Island lost power as the brunt of the storm lashed Martha’s Vineyard. According to the National Weather Service in Taunton, winds blew steadily in excess of 40 knots from 11 pm, Friday, to 11 am, Saturday. The highest gust, 58 knots, occurred early in the morning at 5:53 am.

The down-Island towns of Oak Bluffs and Tisbury were the hardest hit. As of 4 am, Saturday, Nstar reported fewer than 2 percent of customers in Aquinnah were without power, 16 percent in Chilmark and 17 percent in West Tisbury. In Edgartown, 167 customers out of 5,831, or 2.86 percent lost power.

In Oak Bluffs, 2,236 customers out of 4,670 (47.88 percent) lost power. In Tisbury, 1,643 customers out of 3,812 (43.10 percent) were dark.

As of noon Saturday, Nstar reported it was well on the way to restoring power across the Island. In contrast, Tuesday morning nearly 40,000 customers in Massachusetts were still without power, with the bulk of those outages in Plymouth County.

Busy night

As the blizzard began to wind down Saturday morning, police and public safety officials reached by The Times reported that in general, Islanders complied with the driving ban and stayed off the roads.

The Tisbury Fire Department was busy through the night helping Emergency Medical Service responders.

The most serious incident occurred on State Road just west of Camp Street at about 12:30 am Saturday, when a branch fell and took down a power line that landed on top of a car driven by a hospital worker returning home.

“The limb came down with the wire right across the front of the car,” Fire Chief John Schilling said. “But Nstar was very quick on that one, fortunately.”

Chief Schilling said his department responded to eight to 10 calls over the course of 12 hours.

“We dispatched our rescue truck with the ambulance to give them assistance with access,” he said. In one instance, the ambulance was unable to reach a house in a heavily wooded section of town. The rescue truck was used to ferry the patient to the waiting ambulance.

Mr. Schilling said trees and branches fell around town, particularly in the Mink Meadows area where the main lines are located, and that affected power around the Island.

“Nstar’s been hopping,” Mr. Schilling said. “There’s no question. The heavy wet snow was not a friend to us.”

In West Tisbury off Lambert’s Cove Road, David Stanwood said an oak tree snapped in front of his house and “totaled three cars parked in the drive.”

So far the Polly Hill Arboretum has weathered recent storms fairly well, however this past storm did some damage. The Arboretum reported the loss of a historic 80-year-old mulberry tree, one of the few trees planted by Polly Hill’s mother, Margaret Butcher.

At risk

In several incidents, drivers who ventured out at the height of the storm put themselves and emergency responders at risk.

In Edgartown, about 3:30 am, Saturday police went out in the teeth of the storm after they received a report from a plow truck operator that a Honda Pilot SUV had gone through a fence at the intersection of Herring Creek and Slough Cove roads and ended up on the Katama airfield runway with five young people inside.

The driver, Ryan Dunbar, 20, of Tisbury told police he had become lost after dropping friends off on Meetinghouse Road.

“I informed him I had a hard time believing that he didn’t know where he was going, considering he grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, lived across from Meetinghouse Way, traveled on Meetinghouse Way and somehow ended up in Katama,” officer Nicholas Phelps wrote in his police report.

Police plan to apply for several charges that include operating in violation of a motor vehicle ban.

That same night, Edgartown Police were called to a domestic disturbance involving “drinking and arguing,” and a possible suicide threat.

Tisbury Sergeant Chris Habekost said police made no arrests. “The night was busy with power outages, trees down and other storm related events,” he said.

Sergeant Habekost said police assisted emergency rescue crews following a report of a tree limb and power line down across a vehicle. Nstar arrived immediately and shut the power. “It was a lot less serious than it first sounded,” he said.

The unidentified driver was not hurt. “They removed the limb and power line and she drove away,” he said.

Commenting on the radio traffic that night from Edgartown, Mr. Habekost said in addition to storm-related emergencies, around the Island normal police work still continued.

That was made more challenging in Tisbury where officers could not access the station’s computer system because a backup generator failed.

In West Tisbury, Sergeant Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter said drifting snow presented the biggest problem. He reported one arrest. At 8:40 pm Friday, police responded to a report of a 1999 Ford Explorer that had skidded off the road in the vicinity of Nip N Tuck Farm on State Road. Police arrested the operator, Jason Canha, 40, of West Tisbury for operating under the influence of alcohol, Sergeant Manter said, and transported him to the Dukes County Jail.

In Chilmark, Detective Sean Slavin reported “nothing out of the ordinary,” for a winter storm.

In Oak Bluffs, officer James Morse told The Times there were no arrests and no major incidents. “Everyone was pretty well behaved and stayed off the roads,” he said.