Unprecedented storm darkens area

By Herb Scribner

It wasn’t a Halloween trick. It wasn’t an illusion. And it wasn’t a normal occurrence.

Amherst was but one town affected by a powerful and rare October Nor’easter that bulldozed through the region on Saturday, dumping several inches of snow, toppling trees and leaving millions without power in its frosty path.

By the storm’s end, at least 10 inches  – and more than a foot in some areas – of snow forced area schools, colleges and universities, including the University of Massachusetts, to shut down all but critical services for Sunday and Monday. It also caused state and local officials to declare states of emergency and left at least 129,000 homes in western Massachusetts still in the dark as of Sunday night.

“[It was] unprecedented, epic [and] historic,” said Dan Brown, a meteorologist at Springfield-based WGGB-TV abc40.

According to Brown, the October snowstorm was the most in any October since records have been kept by Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. Brown said records have been kept from around 1945.

“We blew it away, not even close,” said Brown.

The storm downed tree branches throughout the region and knocked out power to more than 600,000 people statewide in its height, including much of the UMass campus and surrounding area Saturday into parts of Sunday.

Gov. Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency for Massachusetts Saturday night – which was still in effect Sunday – while the town of Amherst was also under its own state of emergency Sunday. Locally, one death was confirmed in Springfield from the storm – where a man was electrocuted from a live wire attached to a guard rail – and two others were killed in an automobile accident in Falmouth, according to the Boston Globe.

Sgt. Brian Johnson of the Amherst Police reported there were no serious injuries in town due to the storm. And UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said Sunday night that he had heard of no reports of serious injuries on campus because of the storm, either.

But at UMass, officials decided to call off classes for Monday because of difficult access to the campus, limited bus routes and widespread power outages in the greater community, according to Blaguszewski. Much of the UMass campus was in the dark Saturday night, but power was restored to all areas – except for the North Village Apartments – Sunday, he said.

“We thought it was wise and prudent to close [Monday] and get a sense of where things stand in terms of recovery,” said Blaguszewski in a phone interview Sunday night.  “All that we know is that we’re closed. We’ll figure out Monday if we’re closed Tuesday.”

All Five Colleges cancelled classes for Monday, as did area schools.

There was no substantial damage on the UMass campus from the storm, Blaguszewski said, though he did note that he had heard that some cars were damaged near the University on Fearing Street.

But because of the significant power outages, 38 shelters were open statewide and would remain open overnight Sunday and for the next couple of days to aid those without power and those who suffered damage from the storm, according to Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman Scott MacLeod. Amherst residents seeking shelter were advised to go to the Smith Vocational and Agricultural School in Northampton – which has been serving as a regional shelter operation, according to Amherst Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe.

But O’Keefe said that those who can remain safe where they are should shelter-in-place.

“If you can be safe and warm where you are, that is the best place to be,” said O’Keeffe in a phone interview Sunday night.

As of 9 Sunday night, power outages were still scattered throughout Amherst, but most of it was restored to the downtown area, according to Sandra Ahearn, director of communications for the Western Massachusetts Electric Company – one of the main electricity providers of the region. She said that 129,000 of the company’s customers were still without power, though the crews had restored it to 27,000. It could, however, take several days for power to be restored to all areas, she said.

Crews had arrived or were on their way from Michigan, Kansas and Missouri to help in restoration efforts, Ahearn said.

This is in addition to 500 National Guard troops who were dispatched to central and western portions of the state to help cut down trees and perform other restoration efforts, according to Peter Judge, another spokesman for MEMA. The state of emergency declared by Patrick allows for the National Guard’s involvement.

“About 500 soldiers have been utilized today basically in central and western Mass.,” said Judge in a phone interview on Sunday. “They have been the chain saw crews.”

Brown, the meteorologist, said the tree damage was unprecedented and unpredicted.

“We played it very close to the [chest] because we didn’t know what would happen,” said Brown. “We get these kinds of storms in April, March, but not the tree damage. That’s what made it so epic.”

Brown attributed the damage partly to the leaves. He said because the leaves are still on the trees, they act as a hand cradling the snow and find themselves too weak to maintain the thick flakes.

Brown also said that people should expect record-low temperatures for Halloween Monday night before typical fall weather returns.

Concerns over the cold temperatures and the lack of heating and power gave reason for students and Amherst residents alike to seek refuge inside the UMass Campus Center Sunday afternoon and evening. Two Amherst residents, Rob Olmstead and Lori Friedman, both came to the Campus Center after eating at Berkshire Dining Commons in the Southwest Residential Area of campus.

“We figured we’d come here and stay warm,” said Olmstead. “Go home later … sleep in the dark, light a fire – that should be sweet.”

Olmstead is an on-call nurse from Cooley Dickinson Hospital, and worked Saturday during the day before the gusting winds came and swept through the night.

“It was pretty thick,” said Olmstead. “[It was] damaging to a lot of our valley, just a lot of damage.”

Friedman, meanwhile, thought it was going to be “any old storm” until things turned severely “dramatic.”

Olmstead and Friedman both lounged in the Campus Center basement, the former with a laptop charging in one of the outlets. While Olmstead said he could complete his work from the laptop, he still wanted electricity back home.

“It makes you realize how dependent we are on the electronic grid,” said Olmstead.

This was also true for Amherst residents Dan Cashman and George Myers, both graduates of UMass. Cashman and Myers were supposed to DJ at The Basement on Pearl Street in Northampton, but the event was cancelled because of the weather.

“I’m angered because it cost me financial opportunities,” said Cashman. “It would have been a lot of fun.”

Instead, Cashman was limited to lighting candles in the dark – which, he said, is the biggest issue with the power outage.

“The problem is the night when you can’t see, when you have to light like three candles, and you’re just staring at candles,” said Cashman.

Cashman and Myers were joined by other Amherst residents in the Campus Center, which had taken on somewhat of a shelter role because of the unexpected snowy weather.

“It doesn’t have that distraught shelter vibe,” said Myers.

“It reminds me of being a student,” Cashman said on being back in the Campus Center.

For current students, open services at the University on Monday will be limited. All of the dining halls will be open during their regular hours, according to Blaguszewski, the UMass spokesman. The recreation center on campus will be closed, he noted.

And while Blaguszewski did say the library would remain open, that was not the case Monday, as the facility was closed for much of the day.

Herb Scribner can be reached at [email protected] William Perkins can be reached at [email protected]