February 07. 2013 10:58PM

Warning: Watch out for white-out

Union Leader Correspondent

Brian Martin, an employee of the Kingston Highway Department, dumps a load of salt and sand into a plow truck Thursday. (JASON SCHREIBER/Union Leader Correspondent)

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A monster nor'easter with the potential for blizzard conditions is expected to take aim at New Hampshire through Saturday, threatening to drop two feet of wind-driven snow and pose a serious risk for coastal flooding.

A blizzard warning was posted for coastal Rockingham County beginning at 2 p.m. Friday and lasting until 4 p.m. Saturday. Heavy snow and winds gusting 45 mph or higher could create white-out conditions.

Winter storm warnings were issued for inland areas.

The storm, expected to move in this morning, could drop anywhere from 12 to 24 inches of snow across the state, with the highest amounts in southeastern areas and lesser amounts to the north and west, said Tom Hawley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine.

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

Coastal flood watches were also issued.

"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.

With astronomical high tides, a 2.5-foot storm surge and wind-whipped seas building to 15 to 30 feet, Hawley warned coastal residents 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," he said.

The places most vulnerable to flooding are the main beach area along Ocean Boulevard and back streets along Ashworth Avenue, Sullivan said. Splash-over 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.

Downhill fast

Light snow is expected to start early this 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.

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

$75,000 an hour

While the storm could make some roads impassable, state and local highway officials said they'll have extra crews on hand.

When a storm hits all of New Hampshire, the state Department of Transportation puts more than 700 plow trucks on the roads to maintain the 4,600 miles of state highways, DOT spokesman Bill Boynton said.

Snow removal on state highways for a typical eight-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 the dozen he normally has on the roads during a storm.

"We can handle an inch or two an 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.