February 08. 2013 12:09PM

Blizzard warnings posted as potentially historic storm threatens NH

Union Leader Correspondent

An electronic sign on Route 101 in Hampton warns motorists of the impending blizzard. (Jason Schreiber/Union Leader Correspondent)

A monster nor'easter with the potential for blizzard conditions is taking aim at New Hampshire, threatening to drop over two feet of wind-driven snow in some areas and pose a serious risk for coastal flooding.

Blizzard warnings were expanded Friday morning across all of Rockingham and Strafford counties and eastern Hillsborough County through 4 p.m. Saturday as heavy snow and winds gusting up to 50 mph or higher were expected to create whiteout conditions.

"Certainly this is going to be one of the more significant storms that has hit the state in quite a while," said John Jensenius, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine.

Snow began falling early Friday morning and will pick up in intensity through the afternoon and especially overnight when the worst of the storm arrives with blizzard conditions, Jensenius said.

Up to a foot of snow is expected to fall in northern New Hampshire while southern parts of the state and the Seacoast could be hit with anywhere from 20 to 28 inches, Jensenius said.

The storm threat forced schools to close Friday, wreaked havoc for air travelers, and prompted some towns to postpone their annual deliberative sessions.

A coastal flood warning was also issued for the potential for moderate to even major coastal flooding.

"We'll be mindful of that and try to spread the word to folks in low-lying areas," said Hampton Police Chief Jamie Sullivan, also the town's emergency management director.

The tides are astronomically high and with a 2.5 foot storm surge and wind-whipped seas building to 15 to 30 feet, coastal residents are being warned to take precautions.

"I think there could be some serious concerns on the coast. They should have a plan in place on how to deal with that," said Tom Hawley, a weather service meteorologist.

Sullivan said officials would keep a close eye on high tides Friday night and especially Saturday morning.

The places most vulnerable to flooding are the main beach area along Ocean Boulevard and back streets along Ashworth Avenue.

Splashover and debris in the road could also create problems, he said.

"The folks down at the beach are well aware of what the flooding does to those particular areas," Sullivan said.

Another concern is blowing and drifting snow, which could make travel nearly impossible, forecasters said.

Light snow is expected to break out early Friday morning and pick up in intensity through the afternoon, Hawley said.

"By late afternoon, between 4 and 6 p.m., things will go downhill pretty fast. My advice is to stay home and watch it," Hawley said.

If 20 inches falls in Concord, Hawley said this storm would deliver the fifth highest total on record.

Concord's biggest snowfall on record was 27.5 inches in the Blizzard of 1888. That storm is followed by 22.5 inches in a December 2003 storm and 22.2 inches in the Halloween nor'easter of 2011.

"This could certainly end up being a Top 10 for Concord and certainly southeast New Hampshire," Hawley said.

Meanwhile, utility companies warned customers to prepare for possible power outages from the wind and snow damaging trees and power lines, although forecasters said the snow would be light and should just blow off.

"The ground is frozen and that should work to our benefit to stabilize trees," Jensenius said.

Public Service of New Hampshire said it planned to open its emergency operations center on Friday while also adding more line crews to be staged in the Seacoast and southeastern areas. Hampton-based Unitil and other power companies took similar steps.

While the blizzard could make some roads impassable, state and local highway officials said they'll have extra crews on hand to try to keep up.
When a storm hits all of New Hampshire, the state Department of Transportation puts over 700 plow trucks on the roads to maintain the 4,600 miles of state highways, said DOT spokesman Bill Boynton.

Snow removal on state highways for a typical 8-hour storm with two salt applications costs approximately $600,000, or about $75,000 an hour, Boynton said. The cost includes all state equipment, hired equipment, labor, fuel, salt and sand.

Local road crews spent Thursday attaching their plows and loading their trucks with sand and salt.

Kingston Road Agent Rich St. Hilaire lined up two extra trucks and put others on standby to help out the dozen he normally has on the roads during a storm.

"We can handle an inch or two and hour, but three or four inches an hour is difficult," he said.

St. Hilaire urged motorists to get off the roads by 7 p.m. Friday and asked that those snowblowing and plowing their driveways not leave the snow in the roads.

The looming storm also sent residents running to the grocery storms to stock up.

At the Market Basket in Stratham, the usual storm supplies like batteries, water, and rock salt were going fast, but the store still had a supply by Thursday afternoon.

"It hasn't been too bad. We're not backed up. Every register is open," store manager Mark Owens said.