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As Brookhaven roads remain uncleared, residents ask why

Romaine on vacation, highway head on sick leave

A USPS mail truck is stuck in the snow on Route 25A near Nicolls Road Saturday. Photo by Deanna Deal Ciello

February 13, 2013 | 10:05 AM
As many Brookhaven Town residents continue to wonder where the snow plows were days after Winter Storm Nemo blanketed the area with record-breaking snowfall, leaving main roads and secondary roads impassable, the questions have become: Who was in charge and where were they?

"It took [the state] three days on a closed Long Island Expressway to clear [the snow]. … That should say something," Town of Brookhaven Deputy Supervisor Dan Panico (R-Manorville) said about the severity of the storm in a phone interview on Monday.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine was out of town on a planned vacation when the blizzard hit, but Panico said he has been in constant contact with the supervisor and his absence has not hindered recovery efforts "one iota."

By Saturday afternoon, the National Weather Service reported that hamlets like East Setauket, Stony Brook, Smithtown, Huntington and Commack received close to 30 inches of snow. Cars that had been swallowed up by the snow still blocked main roads in the Town of Brookhaven on Monday morning. Residents reported many residential streets had yet to be plowed by Tuesday.

A call for comment to the town's then-acting superintendent of highways Michael Murphy wasn't returned early in the week. Panico announced Wednesday that Murphy was resigning. According to Panico, Murphy, who was serving after former Highway Superintendent John Rouse left the position at the beginning of this year, had been absent since the storm hit.

According to Councilwoman Kathy Walsh (I-Centereach) and confirmed by another source, Murphy has been out sick since the storm hit.

Residents dig out driveways on an unplowed Cumberland Path in East Setauket Saturday. That street was plowed Sunday night. Photo by Alyssa Cutler
Before Murphy announced his resignation, Panico said Murphy would have to answer questions about his absence during the storm. "Believe me," Panico said. "We are going to deal with it."

Panico said he has enlisted John Capella, a deputy in the highway department, to be in command and control operations while Murphy is out.

It was unclear whether Capella would remain head of the department.

Panico said a scarcity of heavy equipment caused an issue with snow removal since the snow was heavy and traditional plows weren't able to handle the weight of it.

He said the highway department had 500 pieces of equipment available for snow removal, with help from the town's departments of parks and waste management. He said a "good amount" of equipment got stuck or broke down during the storm.

Panico said it is a little early to see exactly how the blizzard will affect the highway budget, but accounting for the relatively mild winter before the storm, he said he believes things will be fine.

Heavy equipment from the state Department of Transportation, New York City, Nassau County and upstate municipalities like Utica and Albany were brought in to assist the town with snow removal. On Monday evening, trucks from Nassau County were seen on Nicolls Road in Stony Brook.

North Country Road in Miller Place on Saturday. Photo by Erika Karp
The town also worked closely with Suffolk County to remove cars stranded along highways. Panico said this didn't take away from the town's plowing efforts — in fact it helped clear the roads faster, he said.

The county helped towns secure more than 300 pieces of equipment from the state to help with snow removal, 100 of which went to Brookhaven, said Vanessa Baird-Streeter, director of communications for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

While the county's own 305 pieces of equipment were deployed to address the county roads, the amount of accumulation made clearing them difficult, Baird-Streeter said.

As of Tuesday, all the county roads were passable with the exception of County Road 83, where many cars were abandoned.

In response to post-storm criticism that the county should have instituted a travel ban like Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Baird-Streeter said, "We were always encouraging residents to stay off the roadways."

Baird-Streeter said a travel ban issued on Friday would have made it difficult for people to get home because people had already left for work and needed to travel back home.

Efforts not good enough

Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld (D-East Setauket) was critical of the town highway's response to and preparation for the blizzard.

In a letter sent to Times Beacon Record Newspapers, which was addressed to Murphy and Romaine, Fiore-Rosenfeld called the response "a complete and systematic breakdown in the ability of the town highway department to respond to this crisis."

Fiore-Rosenfeld also called for an emergency meeting with Brookhaven Town Board members and the highway department.

In a phone interview, Fiore-Rosenfeld said he spoke to Julia Wilson, secretary to the superintendent in the highway department, on Monday. He said part of the reason there was a slow response to get streets plowed was because the highway department had no master map to show what streets still needed to be plowed.

While Fiore-Rosenfeld was critical of the highway department's leadership, he said he was thankful for the employees out on the road.

"They are doing the absolute best job they can," Fiore-Rosenfeld said.

Walsh, who is running against Assemblyman Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham) for town highway superintendent, said she understands residents' frustration.

"There's got to be a better way for this to be handled," she said.

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