Monday, October 31, 2011

Snowtober, Snowmageddon: whatever you call it, it's pretty nasty

Nobody expected the early October snow to be quite this bad and disruptive here in the northeast--much more so, as the New York Times pointed out today (at least the paper came) than Hurricane Irene.

I somehow ended up in the middle of it. I had to forgo the Amherst House tour—a benefit for the Amherst Historical Society and Museum, on whose board I serve—because I had earlier agreed to chair a session at the Northeast British Studies conference in Worcester. It was a very enjoyable time, though the anticipation of bad weather on the way home took some of the pleasure out the event. It proved far worse than anticipated. Many people on the road that weekend decided to seek accommodations rather than travel further, and hotel rooms quickly filled up. I was intent on going back in any case, but I did decide to convoy with a colleague. Slushy and slippery roads and at times near-blinding snow slowed traffic to a crawl, so that a trip that should have taken about 80-90 minutes lasted nearly four hours. I saw a good many accidents, ranging from cars that ran into ditches to those that hit guardrails head-on. There seemed to be at least one serious accident involving a large trailer-truck and a car. Even coming through Amherst, there were delays: trees down all over. Route 116 north of UMass was blocked by debris and emergency vehicles.

When I came home, there was still electricity, though lights flickered a few times. The power finally went out late in the evening. Reports indicated that 9,000 of WMECO's 126,000 customers were without electricity (which at least allowed me to quip that I was now among the 93 percent as well as the proverbial "99 percent.") Temperature in our house dropped to about 45 degrees Fahrenheit at night, but a woodstove in the addition made life more comfortable.

There was severe tree damage--blocking roads and downing power lines--throughout town and in particular, it seemed, at the norther end. Damage in our yard was not severe, but nonetheless sad: a dogwood and at least one of the antique apple trees near the house broke (because the trees still have their leaves, damage was much worse than in a typical winter storm).

The Dickinson Museum lost power but escaped major loss. Fallen trees and branches damaged a few sections of the recently restored fence (more on that in another report).

On Saturday, residents flocked to a Stop & Shop in Hadley, largely darkened except for emergency lights at checkout and the ends of aisles.

Dairy foods, meats, frozen foods, and other perishables were removed. Blood stains the racks.

These lobsters died in their tank instead of a pot of boiling water.

A brief report from Town Hall, where I am sitting this afternoon because I needed to charge my phone and computer. Town Manager John Musante is back at work and fully in charge of things, coordinating with the various public safety and public works divisions and keeping the community informed via email updates and SMS. There was only a skeleton staff here today, though it is expected that the building will be open for normal business tomorrow.

Fortunately, the homeless shelter was able to open in time for the storm, and served five clients. Others in need of help, including travelers stranded in town, got help from the police and other authorities.

Power in central Amherst has been restored. As of this afternoon 63% of Amherst was still without power. When John called with an update last night, he hoped that power would be restored to everyone within 48 hours. This afternoon, the estimate was a more cautious and vague "multiple days."  As he and Director of Conservation and Development Dave Ziomek (whom I also saw here) indicated, power went out in some sections of town on Saturday night, but because of the extent and nature of the storm damage, WMECO decided to shut down the entire town so that it could more systematically address problems and repair service. Power enters the town grid from three points or stations: one on College St. in east Amherst, one on West Bay Road, and one on Route 116 in the north.  The general plan was to work outward from each station.

As Dave and John explained, the work is particularly delicate because of the extensive tree damage. Not only did trees take down power lines in some places. In others, they are resting on the lines, which means that each such limb has to be carefully lifted out cut away and power in the affected segment tested and restored.  The Department of Public Works took the lead in clearing debris from roads, and it has now been joined by other groups. Today, WMECO announced that its crews are being joined by those from Westar.

Town Manager Musante says that coordination among Amherst departments has been excellent. And on the bright side: as he and Dave Ziomek told me, the declaration of a local and state emergency means that reimbursement for a large share of the clean-up and repair expenses will be available. Not only is this good news for the budget in general: it also allows town staff more flexibility in deciding which actions to carry out where.

On balance, we have been lucky: there were no fatalities or even serious injuries. By contrast, a 20-year-old Springfield man was killed when he touched a guardrail that had been electrified by a downed power line, and two Sunderland residents have been hospitalized, apparently because they tried to use a gas grill indoors. Amherst Fire Chief Tim Nelson was blunt in warning residents not to grill indoors: "If you do this you will die. Period." He's right: both gas grills and charcoal fires generate carbon monoxide that can easily build to fatal levels (1, 2 ).

Like many other towns in the region, Amherst had decided to postpone Halloween trick-or-treating until next weekend (in our case, November 6). As one of my tweeps put it, "Nothing scarier than a 9yo having a light saber duel w/ a dangling power line."

Latest updates on other institutions:

Amherst public schools are closed tomorrow. UMass and Amherst College are set to reopen Tuesday, but Hampshire College, which sent students home or found them accommodations elsewhere in the Valley, now does not plan to have students return until Wednesday afternoon, which means that classes resume on on Friday (Thursday is an advising day.)

Tuesday update:
latest estimates are that some portions of town may not have power until Friday. It's going to be a long week.

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