Buffalo's October Surprise: A Personal View

 

by Gerry Rising

 

   This commentary provides a personal record of the unique Niagara Frontier weather event of October 2006.

 

The Weather Episode

 

   Early October, the middle of Western New York's most delightful autumn season. Fall leaf colors at their height with most of them still remaining on the trees. A very warm Lake Erie: still at 63° in mid-October.

 

   Into this idyllic setting a front brought in an unexpected and very sudden drop in temperature. This coincided with a southwest wind perfectly oriented to sweep up the entire length of the lake. (Many people think that Lake Erie is oriented west-east. Its orientation is nearer southwest-northeast.)

 

   The completely unexpected result: 22 inches of snow fell Thursday night and Friday morning. More important, unlike the light weight snow of most lake effect storms, this snow was extremely heavy: 2.5 inches of it, over 10%, was water.

 

File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0   File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0  File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0  File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0

Neighborhood Photos: 1. My car Friday morning, down maple limb behind it. Other photos Monday, October 16, note the snow almost all gone already: 2. Our street. 3. A 40-foot locust across the street stripped. 4. A 30-foot maple, most limbs gone. Look closely and you will see the typical woodpile in the background.

 

Narrative

 

Thursday, October 12. The morning TV weather report: a temperature drop would possibly turn afternoon rain to snow showers by evening.

 

   The temperature did indeed drop. Returning in mid-afternoon from a Ducks Unlimited meeting at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge 30 miles east of my home in Amherst, I began to find my car windshield pelted with sleet. It was an unusually cold afternoon, the temperature in the low 40s. Shortly after I reached home at about 3:30 p.m., that sleet changed to large, very moist snowflakes.

 

   Knowing that weather report, I didn't find this especially unusual but my wife was more concerned. "This could cause some real problems with all those leaves still on the trees," Doris suggested. Indeed, although we had been raking all week, many trees still retained their leaves.

 

   Sadly, the prediction of this Alabama Cassandra was soon fulfilled. Within a half hour tree limbs, unable to support this exceptionally heavy snow, began to crack, then split and fall. At about 4:15 p.m. our television went out and at 4:30 our side of our suburban street lost electricity.

 

   For us this meant loss of heat (but not hot water) and, more important, loss of power to our sump pump. We live on a flood plain and, without this pump, our basement would soon be flooded.

 

   At first we could address this problem. Neighbors across the street still had power and we ran a series of our extension cords across to run our pump. Unfortunately, although the snow was by 11:00 p.m. only a few inches deep, a snowplow came though and cut one of the cords. It took me a half hour to splice it and within minutes of the time I finished our neighbors' power was out as well. My wife, who insists on being in charge of this activity, began to bail, carrying buckets of water from the sump hole to the laundry sinks. At first this demanded only a few buckets each time on the hourly schedule she maintained through that first night.

 

   Our neighborhood has many mature 60-foot ashes (we have four) and, although their leaves had already mostly been dropped, through that first night many of their brittle limbs broke and fell. All night we could hear thumps on our roof, often followed by a skidding noise as the limb slid off and fell to the ground. A few of the bumps shook the house.

 

Friday, October 13. Dawn brought a remarkable sight. The snowfall had never stopped and snow was almost two feet deep on lawns and roofs. Although this was clearly the result of a lake effect storm, the snow was exceptionally heavy, the lower several inches so saturated with water that it was dark gray. Shoveling was a back-breaking task and I could only clear a few feet at a time.

 

   Tree limbs were down everywhere. Although we had lost dozens of limbs and still more hung from our trees, our yard was far less damaged than many others.

 

No snowplow returned and only two ruts showed where a truck had passed down our street. The ruts wound back and forth to avoid fallen trees.

 

   I learned that a neighborhood market a half mile away was open so I walked to it to obtain a few groceries. A generator was powering the cash registers, but the rest of the space was dark. Not much was available: no meats or milk and I obtained one of the last loaves of bread. We would subsist on peanut butter sandwiches and a couple of leftover bananas for two days.

 

   Several years ago I visited the Adirondacks after they experienced a serious ice storm that did widespread damage. The damage from this storm differed only in beauty. In the Adirondack storm the ice made down trees look like chandeliers; the Niagara Frontier storm's "decoration" was in piles of multicolored leaves still on large limbs.

 

   Meanwhile Doris continued to bail as neighbors' basements began to flood. As the day progressed and the snow began to melt, her bailing was required with shorter and shorter breaks.

 

   The temperature inside our house dropped to the mid-50s, only a few degrees above outside, but certainly not unbearable. Power outages in mid-winter bring the additional threat of freezing and bursting pipes.

 

   My portable radio brought news of the effect of the storm on the area. About 400,000 homes without power, two deaths already, everything closed, driving bans, a prediction that for many people power would not be restored for over a week. And an even more threatening prediction: rain and a flood watch. Twenty years ago we had been flooded here - a terrible experience - so this was more bad news.

 

   The day remained clear, however, and the snow began to settle. By the end of the day the depth was less than a foot. And, thank goodness, the rain showers that developed late in the day were light.

 

Saturday, October 14. Last night was especially tough on Doris as bailing had become almost continuous. It had become so bad that I was finally allowed to take over. And there was a further threat: as the ground water level rose, our laundry tubs would soon back up and have to be closed. The water would then have to be carried outside. It was clear that something had to be done. I was prepared to drive to Rochester or Syracuse to get a generator if necessary.

 

   But first I called a birding friend, retired hardware store operator Gail Seamans, to plead for help. Gail told me that he would try to work out something for me. Not satisfied, Doris called a local hardware supply house. Of course, everything was sold out. The best the salesman could do was provide us a system that would cost over $500 to be installed about five days later.

 

   Gail called back. He had something for me and I drove to Pembroke, an hour away, to meet him. He had put together a siphon that operated on water power. We would connect it to our faucet and the force of the tap water would draw out the water in our sump. I returned, we hooked it up, and it worked. Not a very efficient system, about 95% of the water came from the faucet and I envisioned a huge water bill. But at least Doris could finally relax.

 

   Earlier I had been told by a lineman I met walking down our street that the electric wires that ran behind our house led to the hospital annex a mile east of us. That meant that our lines were high priority and we might get power reasonably soon. There was much to do to those lines as several poles were down east of us and wires were hanging only a few feet above the ground.

 

   But repair trucks were out. And indeed, at 5:30 p.m. power was restored. Now we only faced clean-up. Our largest expense would be removing our four ashes for they were no longer viable trees.

 

The End Result

 

   Our neighbors across the street only got power back yesterday after a full week outage and still about 25,000 homes remain without power. The total of deaths has reached thirteen. It is estimated that 90% of area trees are damaged and I suspect that at least half of yard trees will need to be replaced. In our case, for example, after we have removed limbs that further threaten our house, we will then later have to have all four of our ashes removed.

 

   We were fortunate to be able to hire a team of neighbors to do most of the pick-up so, except for those trees, we are nearly back to normal. The snow is gone and we have already been raking leaves.

 

   But we were among the lucky ones. Hundreds of teams have come to the area to help with power repairs, members of the National Guard are here helping to remove the huge piles of limbs, and finally, late and after an initial foul-up, even FEMA was here.

 

Photos from ArtVoice, a local Weekly Journal

 

File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0  File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0  

The photo on the right was taken by Rose Maltrey

 

Some Summary Statistics

 

From today's Buffalo News:  "When all costs are added up for every municipality, including overtime and other storm-related expenses, the total could hit $250 million, [Erie County Executive Joel] Giambra said.

 

"Buffalo's 2.6 million cubic yards of debris is enough to fill every square inch of Ralph Wilson Stadium [where the Buffalo Bills play] to a height of 28 stories, the height of City Hall, Public Works Commissioner Joseph N. Giambra estimated. Add in Erie County's 4 million to 6 million cubic yards, and you get a stack higher than any building in Buffalo, more than 70 stories. The estimated 1.75 million cubic yards of debris in Amherst and Clarence laid out in a line would stretch from here to just short of Omaha, Neb., nearly 1,000 miles.

 

"Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office issued a number of subpoenas to businesses suspected of gouging customers after the Oct. 12-13 storm. James M. Morrissey, an assistant attorney general in Spitzer's Buffalo office, declined to name the firms but said he subpoenaed business records of companies suspected of charging excessive prices for electrical generators, electric hookups and plumbing services. Cleanup companies also are being looked at. State law allows businesses to charge what they wish, Morrissey said, but does not allow them to boost prices during times of natural disasters when customers are at their mercy. Companies will be allowed to show why their price hikes are justified, he said, but those that boosted prices to take advantage of customers could be forced to reimburse the excess costs and could be fined up to $10,000.

 

"The road back will take months, a number of local officials said. In Buffalo, after crews finish dealing with falling debris, Giambra, the public works commissioner, said they will start trimming trees for safety reasons."

 

Lessons Learned

 

Generators. Our neighborhood was noisy for a week with portable gasoline-powered generators pumping out basements and in some cases running refrigerators and freezers. Unfortunately there are dangers involved with this. Several people died in Buffalo from carbon monoxide poisoning. One sad story: A friend tells me that two of the thirteen deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator run inside a home. According to him, this was a second generator. The first, run on the porch of the home, had been stolen.

 

   Another alternative is a battery operated sump pump. Years ago we had one for a time but it simply did not work when we checked it and we finally removed it. I understand that

 

   One neighborhood couple came through the storm with no power loss. They have a natural gas-powered generator that is connected to their home gas line. It came on automatically after less than a minute delay and powered their home through the entire episode. This kind of generator is expensive but we plan to have one installed.

 

   Interestingly, one suggestion made by a radio caller was to bury all regional electric lines. The power company representative responded that this would make repairs easier but would not prevent outages because many transfer stations remain above ground.

 

Chain saws. I hesitate to recommend that people buy chain saws because they are dangerous tools. If you are concerned about power outages, do not buy an electric saw unless you have a generator. Having said that, such saws made a major difference in the clean-up process.

 

   There is one other thing to be taken into account with any kind of timber removal. Lumbermen tell me that partially broken and twisted limbs often are extremely stressed and can spring quickly and unexpectedly to cause accidents. This adds to the danger of working with a chain saw.

 

Supplies. We have a number of good flashlights that proved very useful, but batteries soon gave out and were immediately sold out from regional stores. I tried in over ten locations to find D batteries without success. Having extra batteries on hand is certainly a good idea.

 

   Refrigerated foods are problematic. Every time you open a refrigerator or freezer to remove food you further warm the interior. There are few ways to avoid this if you have no power. Several people have suggested putting food out in snow drifts, but I know of no one who has done this.