Wintry mid-autumn storm sweeps Western Mass., recovery begins

By Herb Scribner

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Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

It had many of the typical features of a mid-winter storm – several inches of snow on the ground, icy roads and cold temperatures.

Only it was in mid-autumn, at October’s end.

The rare fall nor’easter that pummeled the region Saturday left hundreds of thousands of people without power and toppled trees and branches across the Pioneer Valley and around much of the Northeast, shaking up normality for some with its record-setting snowfall and causing many schools and businesses yesterday – including the University of Massachusetts – to halt most activities.

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

Brown said the Pioneer Valley saw at least 10 inches of snow, with some local areas seeing over a few feet. And, according to Brown, the snowfall was an all-time record for the month of October in the area – beating out all other measurements since records have been kept at the Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee since 1945.

On Saturday night, Gov. Deval Patrick, D-Mass., declared a state of emergency for Massachusetts – which was still in effect last night, according to Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman Scott MacLeod. Similarly, the town of Amherst declared a state of emergency over the weekend, which was also still in effect last night, according to Amherst Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe.

“Progress is slow but steady,” said O’Keeffe in a phone interview last night. She noted that officials helping to run the town’s emergency operations center have been meeting twice a day to discuss recovery efforts.

No major injuries related to the storm, though, had been reported in Amherst as of last night, according to O’Keeffe and UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.

But statewide, five deaths were blamed on the storm: a Springfield man died when he was electrocuted by a downed power line on a guardrail, a Hatfield woman died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a heater that wasn’t properly ventilated, a Lunenburg woman died in a house fire due to a power outage, and two people in Falmouth died in what has been described as a storm-related automobile accident, according to the Boston Globe.

And more than 48 hours after it arrived on Saturday, people were still trying to recover from the remnants of the storm in Amherst. Power outages were still widespread yesterday in town, with about 6,500 homes without power in town as of last night, according to Sandra Ahearn, the director of communications for the Western Massachusetts Electric Company – the town’s main utility provider.

“Most customers will now have service back by Thursday,” said Ahearn in a phone interview last night, adding that some areas will get power back before then. Crews from Missouri, Michigan and Kansas were slated to help out the company in restoring power to the area, Ahearn noted in an earlier interview on Sunday.

Across the state, almost 450,000 residences were still without power as of 7 last night, according to MacLeod. He said the areas with the most heavily concentrated outages included southern Worcester County and northeast Hampden County.

Recovery efforts in some of the most heavily affected areas, according to MacLeod, were aided by about 360 troops from the National Guard.

“It’s primarily tree removal and traffic control” that they’re doing, said MacLeod.

At UMass, power outage problems, for the most part, had been fixed as of last night – save for North Village Apartments, which was still without power, according to Blaguszewski. Much of the campus was in the dark Saturday night, but power was restored to most areas on Sunday.

And while officials at the University decided to call off classes for Monday, they made a decision yesterday evening to reopen the University today, according to Blaguszewski, who said that those traveling to the school should take caution and should not come in if it would jeopardize their safety.

Tree branches remained strewn along the side of roadways and walkways at the school yesterday. All roads at the University, though, had been cleared yesterday and were passable, Blaguszewski said.

But in town late yesterday morning, tree branches blocked the snow-covered sidewalks, with patches of both black and thick ice smoothing over the side streets. And about half a dozen town roads were not passable as of yesterday morning, though that number had been expected to decrease throughout the day, according to O’Keeffe.

All state roads, including Route 9, were deemed passable yesterday by state police, according to a spokesman for the organization.

No major structural damage, however, had been reported locally as of last night. Blaguszewski, though, said in an interview Sunday that he had received reports that some vehicles in the vicinity of Fearing Street near the University had sustained damage.

But because of the continuing widespread outages, 77 shelters were open across the state as of last night, according to MacLeod. Those living in the Amherst area in need of shelter were advised to go to the Smith Vocational and Agricultural School in Northampton, which has been serving area communities over the past few days.

“Either shelter-in-place or go to the one in Northampton,” said O’Keeffe of those in need of a place to go. “If they can’t get there on their own, they should call the police.”

While the surrounding area began to recover yesterday, the UMass Campus Center was filled with many students and local residents alike who were without power both Sunday and yesterday.

The storm did also upend plans for trick-or-treaters in town. Town officials postponed the Halloween festivity to next Sunday because of recovery efforts still taking place.

Brown, the meteorologist, blamed the storm’s heavy damage on the leaves that remained on the trees. Because usual snowfalls happen when the leaves are gone, it doesn’t provide extra weight for the leaves to cradle when the snow falls, according to Brown.

Despite the recent wintry weather, Brown said on Sunday that fall is on its way back after chilly conditions last night. He said people should expect 50 and 60 degree weather to finish out the week.

“Fall is coming back,” he said.

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