Weeks later, town chipping away at Nemo's tree mess

The blizzard hit over two months ago but in Westport the cleanup continues. "We are still full out cutting limbs, trees and debris," said Chris Gonsalves, Highway Department foreman. "I've never seen anything like it and hope never to again." A recent Friday found his small crew over on Drift Road, "one of the hardest hit places." Big broken limbs lean out toward the road "so far that they took some of the mirrors off our plows." Elsewhere "hangers"  —snapped off trees still dangling in mid air — abound. These can be unpredictable and dangerous, he says, and take time to deal with. "Cornell Road — there were a lot of hangers there and still more that we have to get to. You can't leave them because they are going to come down sometime." For awhile the Highway Department was able to hire private contractors to help "but the way the budget is they had to shut that off. Now it is just our six people." Mr. Gonsalves said they'll be at it for weeks more "and that gets in the way of the other work we need to do — catch basins, road cleanup. With 160 miles of road it's too much for six people." The foreman, who is running the department in the absence of Highway Surveyor Jack Sisson, is assembling of list of needs that he hopes the town will address. "We badly need another Freightliner (truck) and a person to drive it," for work year-around including winter plowing. The town now has one nearly new one and an assortment of relics. And the tree damage has put the spotlight on the need for a new chipper. The one now in service is probably 15 years old and suffers from rust and breakdowns. "We've been using that all day every day and it can't handle it any more." One blessing has been the department's "tree truck," a retired electric company bucket truck obtained for free a few years ago by Mr. Sisson. It's the only piece of town equipment able to deal with broken trees and "without it we would have had to spend a fortune" on private tree companies. "I'm a taxpayer too and I understand it but taxpayers deserve service." Mr. Gonsalves said he is aware that homeowners, too, are still dealing with the debris — calls for assistance come in constantly. "We have to stick to the town roads otherwise we'd never catch up," he said. For awhile, residents were able to drop off branches at the landfill; it's not clear whether that will resume at any point. Some tree species were hit harder than others by the heavy, wet clinging snow that turned to ice. Pines, cedars, arborvitae and maple limbs top the list "but we've even seen entire oak trees uprooted." One eventual benefit of it all will be an abundance of high quality mulch for Highway Department roadside projects around town. Those chipped up limbs will be blended with the debris pulled from catch basins every spring, a blend of rotted leaves, soil and sand. "Mix it all together, let it sit for awhile and you get a really good loam compost," Mr. Gonsalves said. "Our chipping pile looks like a mountain right now." Also on the Highway Department wish list is a road sand system alternative called Magic used by Swansea and other places. Instead of mixing sand with the salt, this method uses a salt/brine mix. "That means a lot less sand piling up in our streams and catch basins every year," Mr. Gonsalves said, adding that the Conservation Commission is reviewing the idea to see if it is environmentally sound.


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.