New England’s Snow Becomes Too Much for Roofs

Laconia — March 7, 2008 — It has been a great winter for skiers in central and northern New England, but the heavy snowfall has become a nightmare for municipal budgets and the owners of dozens of buildings whose roofs have collapsed. A mill complex under renovation in Laconia, a building at a summer camp in Concord, N.H., and a Wal-Mart distribution center in Lewiston, Me., are among the buildings whose roofs have collapsed in the last three days under the weight of snow made denser by rain and ice from a storm that swept through this week. Schools across the region have closed because of weakened roofs.

“I’ve lived here for years, and I’ve never seen damage like this,” said the Rev. Shirley Marcroft, who with her husband, Dave, is pastor of New Life Church in Campton, N.H. The church’s roof caved in and part of the building collapsed Wednesday night because of the snow. Ms. Marcroft said the food pantry lost $4,000 worth of provisions she bought last week.

“It’s not as much our loss as a loss for the community and people who need it,” she said. “We’ve lost a lot, too, all of our church stuff, but they’re hurting more.”

All told, about 20 roofs have collapsed here in the lakes region of central New Hampshire, Capt. Ken Ericson of the Laconia Fire Department said, and officials are urging building owners to shovel off their roofs. Concord has received 102.2 inches of snow this winter, said Fred Gadomski, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University. The snowiest winter in Concord was in 1873-74, when the city received 122 inches.

Snow alone is, however, not the culprit. Last month was not only the snowiest February on record in Concord — 33 inches fell — but rain and ice storms also made it the wettest, Mr. Gadomski said. The snow acted like a sponge, absorbed the water and, in turn, became leaden.

“It’s a combination of snow, subsequent rain, and if you have a flat roof that doesn’t go away,” said William Davids, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maine. “It can be exacerbated if ice backs up drains and they don’t work properly. Better insulation, which melts less snow, and all sorts of things play into it. And the snow has been building up for a long time this winter.”

The abundance of snow is also putting a strain on municipalities, which have gone far over budget because of snow removal. Rutland, Vt., has used 95 percent of its overtime plowing budget, and will plow at night only if it is absolutely necessary, Mayor Christopher Louras said.

“If you can pass safely through the city streets, we won’t call out the crews,” Mayor Louras said.

Scott Cole, the town manager in Bethel, Me., where snowbanks rival roofs in height, said the town has not gotten a break.

“It’s a slow-motion tsunami,” Mr. Cole said. “It affects you every day, little by little. It’s continuous now. You’re dealing with it as a public official, and you’re dealing with it at your own house, too.”

In Lebanon, Me., an elementary school was closed because several roof beams cracked under the weight of the snow, said Selectwoman Judy Churchard, and on many roads two cars can barely pass because of snowbanks.

“The snow is like concrete in some places,” she said.

The town must hold a special meeting to appropriate more money for the snow and road budget. It was supposed to be held in the shuttered school, and the town must find a new location.

“It’s not just snow,” Ms. Churchard said. “There’s been so much damage to roads, with freezing, thawing and plowing. It’s just a big headache. I can’t wait for spring.”

A bigger problem — potentially devastating spring flooding — looms large in the minds of many.

“The flood potential is extraordinary,” Mr. Gadomski said. If April is dry and the snow melts slowly, the flooding should be minimal. But if it is wet, there will be problems. There’s no way to hold back the tide of the season. It’s going to be a theme park devoted to slush all over central and northern New England.”

The region is expecting to be pelted with another storm this weekend, which could bring 6 to 12 inches of new snow by Monday morning, Mr. Gadomski said.

“We’re dealing with stuff that people don’t see very often,” he said, “even the hardy central and northern New Englanders.”

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