Riverhead salt storage facilities at 8:15 a.m. on March 6, 2015.
Photo: Peter Blasl

Nearly eight inches of snow fell in Riverhead yesterday, with snow totals in the six- to nine-inch range across Suffolk County, according to the National Weather Service.

Riverhead public and parochial schools will have a two-hour delayed start. See list of local closings, cancellations and delays.

Riverhead Highway Department truck spreading salt-sand on Sweezy Avenue yesterday morning as snow began to fall. (Photo: Peter Blasl
Riverhead Highway Department truck spreading salt-sand on Sweezy Avenue yesterday morning as snow began to fall.
(Photo: Peter Blasl)

Highway crews spread a mix of salt-sand on all town roads yesterday just as the snow started falling, then plowed to keep roads open during the storm and plowed until about 11:30 last night, Deputy Highway Superintendent Mark Gajowski said. They returned to work at 4:30 a.m. to push back snow that drifted over local roadways overnight and are continuing to plow this morning.

“Then we’ll put down a base coat of the limited salt-sand supply we have on the town’s through-streets,” Gajowski said. There’s not enough on hand to put it down on all roads, he said.

“We’ll hold onto whatever’s left over to hit trouble spots again as needed.”

Gajowski said he hopes Riverhead will get another salt delivery soon, but the town has no way of knowing if it’s coming. (Gajowski is managing operations for Highway Superintendent George Woodson, who went to a heavy equipment trade show in Indianapolis late Wednesday and will return tomorrow.)

Riverhead has had 1,100 tons of salt on order for two weeks, but has gotten small deliveries “in dribs and drabs,” Woodson said on Tuesday.

Highway superintendents in Southold and Brookhaven told RiverheadLOCAL the same thing this week. Woodson, who is president of the Suffolk County Highway Superintendents Association, said most towns are in the same boat.

Woodson said last night he was taken aback by Supervisor Sean Walter’s comment to a local newspaper yesterday that the town has “plenty” of salt on hand and another 700 tons on the way.

“Unfortunately, he has no idea what he’s talking about,” Woodson said. “And comments like that give the public a false sense of safety.” It also creates a public perception that his department isn’t doing all it could, and that’s not fair, he said.

Reached last night, the supervisor reiterated his belief that there’s no shortage of road salt. He told RiverheadLOCAL the highway department ordered 50,000 tons of salt on Monday.

“He ordered it on Monday and he got it delivered Wednesday. How’d that happen, huh?” Walter asked.

Told that Woodson says he’s had 1,100 tons on order for two weeks, Walter corrected himself and said the highway department’s order was placed on Feb. 23, not this Monday.

Asked how he knows 700 tons is “on the way,” Walter said, “On the way is the same as on order.”

He said he plans to suggest to Woodson that he use highway reserve funds to buy salt in the off-season. “The barns should be stuffed to capacity with salt before the season begins,” Walter said.

Highway superintendent George Woodson in one of the highway department’s two storage facilities at the Osborn Avenue highway yard on Jan. 25.
(Photo: Peter Blasl)

But Woodson said the barns were in fact full at the beginning of December, at the start of the season. Two days before the Jan. 26 blizzard, Woodson told RiverheadLOCAL his department’s salt supplies were good. He said in a Jan. 24 interview, he’d stocked up with extra salt last year because he’d heard rumors of an impending salt shortage.

“I wasn’t taking any chances,” Woodson said during that interview.

December and much of January were quiet, but since the last 10 days of January,  it’s been seven weeks of snowfall after snowfall. As a result, the salt supplier in Staten Island has had trouble fulfilling its orders, according to Woodson and other town highway superintendents, including Brookhaven Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro and Southold Highway Superintendent Vincent Orlando. A spokesman for Suffolk County said Tuesday the county’s salt supply was “critically low.”

The highway department told the Riverhead school and fire districts two weeks ago it could no longer supply them with salt because supplies were so low, Gajowski said. Riverhead Town had signed inter-municipal agreements with both districts to sell them salt out of town supplies.

“This has been a rough winter,” said the deputy superintendent. “The fatigue and frustration [among crew members] is starting to take its toll. You’ve got guys plowing for 18 hours. You send them home for four hours to rest and ask them to come back and do it all over again. Some guys just can’t make it, and then your crew of 30 guys gets even smaller,” he said.

After a very cold day and night today — some 20 degrees below average according to the National Weather Service — temperatures will gradually warm up beginning tomorrow, according to NWS meteorologist David Wally. By Sunday, daytime temperatures will reach into the 40s, Wally said this morning. That trend will hold through next week, he said, with a strong possibility of the mercury flirting with 50 on Thursday.

Nighttime temperatures will dip down to freezing or below freezing through the same period, Wally said.

“We’ll have good thaw and refreeze patterns, and that’s good for reducing the snowpack,” Wally said. “We’d like to gradually lose the snowpack. Hopefully we won’t have a big rainfall. That will complicate things.”

But the thaw and refreeze pattern complicates things for highway departments as well when salt supplies are low.

Thawing snow means wet pavement, even standing water. When temperatures drop at night, ice and black ice forms on roads.

“We’ll put down straight sand if we have to, but that’s not as effective,” Gajowski said. “Let’s hope we get more salt. But I look at my barn now and all I see is concrete.”

Top photo caption: Riverhead salt storage facilities at 8:15 a.m. on March 6, 2015. (Photo: Peter Blasl)

Correction:  The name of Deputy Superintendent Mark Gajowski was spelled incorrectly in this story as originally published. We regret the error.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor and attorney. Her work has been recognized with numerous journalism awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She was also honored in 2020 with a NY State Senate Woman of Distinction Award for her trailblazing work in local online news. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.