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Town struggles to clear drifted-over roads littered with dozens of disabled vehicles

Disabled vehicle on a drifted-over Roanoke Avenue in Riverhead on the morning of Jan. 6. Photo: Peter Blasl

Several dozen disabled vehicles, many of them abandoned overnight, are cluttering the roads that cut through the town’s farm belt this morning.

Riverhead Town Police and highway department crews are battling icy winds and blowing snow to dig out the vehicles stuck in snow drifts so plows can work to clear the roads and keep them open.

There were at least 60 vehicles abandoned on local roads overnight, Riverhead Highway Superintendent George Woodson said. Deputy Superintendent Mike Zaleski said highway crews have pulled out at least another 75 vehicles since the blizzard started early Thursday morning.

The disabled vehicles compound the problems of high winds and blowing snow drifting back onto the roadways as soon as plows pass through.

“You go through with the plow and the snow blows in right behind you,” Zaleski said. “We try to clear around the disabled vehicles as best we can, but they still have to have a private tow come in to pull them out.”  In some places, even tow trucks have gotten stuck in the drifts.

Suffolk County is sending tow trucks to Riverhead to help remove disabled vehicles from town roads, after Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith reached out toCounty Executive Steve Bellone. Local private towing companies are overwhelmed by the volume, she said. Town officials had a conference call this morning with Bellone, Suffolk Public Works Commissioner Gil Anderson and the Suffolk Fire, Emergency and Rescue Services Commissioner John Williams. 

Blowing snow has been creating whiteout conditions, severely reducing visibility and causing at least two accidents involving disabled vehicles in the road, Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said.

Many if not most of the highway department’s 32 workers put in more than 40 hours straight, trying to stay ahead of the storm and keep local roads open, Zaleski said. “Everybody’s just exhausted.”

The storm has also taken a toll on the highway department’s vehicles and equipment, which have been in near-continuous use since early Thursday morning, Jens-Smith said.

“We’ve got two plows down right now and a pay-loader broke on Horton Avenue,” Zaleski said this morning.

Town mechanics have been busy trying to make repairs as quickly as possible to keep the fleet operational, he said.

Highway department crews have pulled out at least 75 stuck vehicles since the storm started, Zaleski said. “That’s not even counting all the vehicles pulled out by police,” he said.

The Riverhead chief of police could not yet provide a number but it has been “a lot.” Police officers have been working around the clock to free stuck vehicles and rescue disabled motorists. One elderly man, reported missing last night from his home in western Suffolk, was rescued from his disabled vehicle this morning by a town police officer, who transported the man to Peconic Bay Medical Center.

Officials are urging residents to stay off the roads this morning, as strong winds continue to blow. Roads surrounded by the open fields on the north end of town continue to present the biggest problems, as the winds sweep the snow off farm fields and create drifts on the roads.

Motorists whose vehicles become disabled should stay in their vehicles and call police, Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps Chief Rod Richardson said. It’s dangerous to venture out on foot in whiteout conditions and with below-zero wind chill values.

“Be aware of carbon monoxide in case you’re in a drift and the exhaust pipe is compromised,” Richardson said.

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.