By Dave Rogers
---- — NEWBURYPORT — With the region firmly in the grip of a deep Arctic freeze that drove temperatures below zero yesterday for the first time in two years and whipping winds making it feel much colder, those who could stay indoors likely did.
For those who had no choice, including crossing guards, letter carriers, power line workers and others, but to brave the elements, the recipe for warmth included long-johns, multiple coats, sweaters and wool socks.
Salisbury resident Ray Whitley, who monitors weather conditions for the National Weather Service, said the thermometer hit minus 2 degrees Wednesday morning, making it the first time the region has seen sub-zero temperatures since two years ago when it reached minus 8 degrees on Jan. 24, 2011. Yesterday, the high temperature was 16 degrees with the strongest recorded wind gust at 30 mph. The strong wind made it feel colder than Tuesday, even though the high temperature that day was 14 degrees, according to Whitley.
Conditions were even more hellacious for the half dozen or so contractors from Cora Operations who have been repairing a section of the Gillis Memorial Bridge over the last few days.
With little cover from the winds and the freezing temperatures, the workers brought along several space heaters and constructed a windbreak made out of 2-by-4s and plywood. The windbreaks and space heaters offered some solace, more than a tent the contractors had tried to erect on Wednesday. High winds blew the tent over several times, forcing the workers to come up with their windbreak idea. Situated 40 or 50 feet above the Merrimack River, the bridge seemed especially nasty yesterday as high winds whipping the water turned exposed skin painfully red within a few minutes.
MassDOT spokesperson Michael Verseckes said crews are conducting preventive maintenance of the steel that makes up the open grating portion of the bascule span or the part of the bridge that moves. Steel plates are used to cover the grating but Verseckes said those plates were only meant to be temporary. The total approximate cost of the repairs, which are expected to be completed today, is $5,000.
Watching over the construction, which has forced the closure of the right-hand lane of the northbound side from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. since Tuesday, was a Newburyport police officer.
As he walked near the construction site, officer Michael Wilichoski said he felt relatively warm yesterday thanks to long johns, a sweater and something he called a “zoot suit” comprised of matching jacket and snowpants.
“Meat and potatoes is why I am warm now,” Wilichoski said.
Wilichoski said police details are fewer to be had during the winter, so when he heard of the Gillis Bridge project, he quickly offered to take the gig, despite knowing full well that conditions on the bridge would be colder than cold.
Contractors seemed to be in good spirits yesterday as they moved from space heater to space heater after completing a task. Perhaps the most fortunate contractor on the bridge yesterday was the man operating a blow torch — at least he appeared to be the person keeping still the longest.
A supervisor at the job site called yesterday the coldest working day he could remember in two years.
“You don’t have a choice. The repairs were needed so they had to be done,” the supervisor, who asked not to be named, said.