Surprise Snowstorm Paralyzes the Northeast

An early fall weekend that should have brought activity no more strenuous than raking up colorful autumn leaves left hundreds of thousands of Northeasterners, cold and stranded in their homes, and weather-weary.

 

Before the storm blew out over the North Atlantic early Sunday, it paralyzed communities around the Northeast, knocking out power to 3,000,000 homes and businesses throughout the region. Governors in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut declared states of emergency. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York declared an emergency in 13 counties.

 

Massachusetts had half a million homes without power, Pennsylvania more than 200,000, and in New York State, around 270,000. The disruption was particularly severe in New York City’s northern suburbs, including Westchester, Rockland, Orange and Putnam counties. Con Edison reported on Monday afternoon that power was still out to more than 77,000 customers in Westchester. At the same time, Orange and Rockland Utilities said that service had not yet been restored to more than 23,000 customers in Rockland.

 

Like many other suburban-based businesses in the area, the Yated Ne’eman main office in Monsey, New York, lost its electrical power due to the storm. When it became clear that normal service was unlikely to be restored quickly, electrical generators were brought in to supply limited power, but other vital business services such as phones, faxes and Internet access, were still unavailable due to the storm. As a result, Yated on Monday asked Michael Rothchild to allow it to move into his offices at the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation in order to get this paper out on schedule.

 

Within hours, the Yated office staff, under the direction of Ms. Mati Hiley, broke down their operation, packed up and moved all their equipment, and resumed operations at the new location with a minimum of disruptions.

 

YESHIVA SCHEDULES DISRUPTED

 

Some yeshivos in suburban communities hard hit by the storm, such as Yeshiva Ohr Hameir in Peekskill, in upstate New York , and the Yeshiva Gedolah of Paterson, NJ, were forced to postpone the start of the new zman. The yeshiva in Waterbury, Connecticut, set up shop in Brooklyn, while other yeshivos were considering temporarily moving their talmidim to other locations until heat and lights could be restored in their own buildings. In Monsey, for example, Yeshiva Bais Dovid set up makeshift classes in the Bais Rochel school for the duration of the emergency.

 

Some small shuls in heavily wooded areas had trouble maintaining their regular minyanim because of the blockage of many streets to vehicular traffic, and the dangers of walking while live electrical wires were still lying on the ground. Many of the outlying side streets in those communities remained impassable to vehicular traffic for days due to downed limbs and fallen trees, which also did a great deal of damage to parked cars and homes.

 

DEALING WITH AN EXTENDED EMERGENCY

 

As the power outages and below normal temperatures continued, new problems surfaced. The danger of hypothermia to young children and the elderly living in homes which had gone for days without heat became a serious concern.

 

Families with young children found difficulty in replenishing their stocks of fresh foods, such as milk, or finding local food stores that were both open for business and had a decent supply of staples still on their shelves.

 

In order to keep refrigerated food from spoiling after more than 24 hours without power, some resourceful homemakers resorted to removing their perishables and burying them outside, under a layer of snow.

 

In Rockland County, the electric company distributed dry ice at a local athletic field for the benefit of its customers without power who were desperate to save their food in their freezers that was slowly defrosting.

 

As soon as the power started going out, there was a run at local hardware stores and home improvement centers as people searched desperately to buy electrical generators or chain saws. Others benefitted from their preparations for previous major weather events, such as the ice storm of 2008 in New Hampshire and Tropical Storm Irene in New Jersey, which had prompted them to buy generators and other emergency equipment which they were able to put to good use once again.

 

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR CHESED

 

Some people temporarily moved into their cars, where they kept the engine running to provide heat and power to charge their cell phone batteries. Others drove for miles from their homes looking for a place where they could buy hot food, or moved in temporarily with friends or relatives who still had power in their homes. Every hotel within an hour’s drive of Monsey which still had heat and power was fully booked.

 

On the positive side, the difficult conditions offered people who still had utility service unexpected opportunities to do acts of chesed by taking in their fellow Jews, with their families, when conditions in their own homes became untenable.

 

The main culprit was the combination of the thick coating of wet snow and many trees which still had their full complement of leaves, many of them still green. Their weight combined to snap off the branches, and drag down the power lines. The combination created hazardous conditions requiring a very careful and lengthy cleanup process. The problem was especially severe in the suburbs where all the power lines are above ground, and local streets and highways are thickly lined with old trees.

 

A SIGN OF NEGLECT

 

Many of the affected residents in the region felt that their communities should have been better prepared for such an emergency. Some said that their local utilities should have put more of the electrical grid underground, and should have had more repair crews and equipment available. Others said that the length of time needed to make repairs was another indication of the general neglect of this country’s infrastructure.

 

Aside from the delay in making repairs, customers were frustrated by the inability of their local utility companies to tell them when to expect their electrical power to be restored.

 

Christopher St. Lawrence, the supervisor of the town of Ramapo, which includes Monsey, has called for an investigation by the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) into the failure of Orange and Rockland Utilities to inform its thousands of customers who lost service due to the storm as to when to expect their power to be restored. He urged the PSC to suspend the utility’s most recent request for a rate increase until it provides an explanation as to why it kept its customers “in the dark, both literally and figuratively,” about its repair efforts.

 

The snowstorm was blamed for at least 12 deaths. An 84-year-old Pennsylvania man was killed by a tree that fell on his home, a person died in a traffic accident in Colchester, Conn., and a 20-year-old man was electrocuted by a downed power line in Springfield, Mass.

 

There were also some close calls. Kathy Johansen, of Woodbury, Connecticut., told a reporter that she had a scare when her car was stuck in the snow. Just as a snowplow had finally cleared the way for her to drive off, a large tree crashed within inches of her car.

 

“Look at this, look at all the damage,” said Jennifer Burckson, 49, after she came outside Sunday morning in South Windsor, Connecticut, to find a massive tree branch had smashed her car’s back windshield. Trees in the neighborhood were snapped in half, and the others were weighed down so much that the leaves brushed the snow piled on the ground.

 

NEW YORK CITY GOT OFF EASY

 

The storm worsened as it moved north. Its impact totally disrupted the normal routine of life in inland communities, especially those at higher elevations. Communities in western Massachusetts were among the hardest hit. Snowfall totals topped 30 inches in Plainfield, and nearby Windsor got 26 inches. Parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, upstate New York, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine were also particularly hard hit. West Milford, N.J. and Jaffrey, N.H., both got 31 inches.

 

At Hartford’s Bradley International Airport, more than 12 inches fell, smashing the previous record for the date of less than a tenth of an inch.

 

However, thanks to the still warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean, in coastal cities and communities, snowfall totals were much lower, and temperatures, even at night, did not fall much below freezing. Washington DC received a just trace of snow. New York City’s Central Park set a record for both the date and the month of October with just 1.3 inches of snow. Similarly, Long Island communities recovered relatively quickly from the effects of the storm.

 

But even in New York City, where most of the power lines are underground, branches and trees felled by the storm blocked many streets and highways, and turned many residents into virtual prisoners in their own homes. Manhattan’s Central Park suffered severe damage to as many as 1,000 trees.

 

UTILITIES WERE UNPREPARED

 

Even though the weather forecasters had accurately predicted the storm’s arrival, just about everyone had underestimated its intensity. None of the region’s municipalities and utilities had expected a storm so early in the season, to create that much damage and disruption. Usually, when a major storm is expected, local utilities put their repair crews on alert, and bring in more help from other areas of the country, but for this storm, no such preparations were made. As a result, when the storm was over, repair crews were in short supply, and those available were faced with a complex and dangerous cleanup task. In each of the many places where power lines had been brought down by fallen limbs and trees, crews had to deal simultaneously with the threats from live wires and trees ready to topple over.

 

“This is not going to be a quick fix,” said Peter Judge, a Massachusetts emergency management official.

 

Jerry Ryan, a lead electrician for Connecticut Light and Power, working in the blacked-out townof Sherman, used a hand-held voltage detector to warn him if he came across a live wire.

 

“This beats out Hurricane Irene big time. It’s 10 times worse,” he said.

 

BRINGING IN OUTSIDE HELP

 

After getting a late start, utility companies throughout the region brought in extra repair crews from as far away as Michigan and Canada to speed up the restoration of electricity. By early Monday, the number of customers without power had fallen to around 2 million, and was decreasing rapidly. But utility officials warned that it could still be days or even a week before all residents would have their power restored.

 

“We are in full restoration mode,” said Marcy Reed, president of National Grid Massachusetts.

 

New Jersey’s largest electric and gas utility, PSE&G, warned customers to prepare for “potentially lengthy outages” and advised that power might not be fully restored until Wednesday, a full four days after the storm. Con Ed told its customers in Westchester County the same thing.

 

THE SNOW WAS GONE FIRST

 

The storm’s lingering effects outlasted the snow in many areas. Temperatures began rising Monday causing much of the heavy, wet snow to start melting while many of the side roads in suburban communities were still impassable due to fallen trees and branches, and power was still out.

 

By Monday morning, trees, branches and power lines still littered roads and rail lines throughout the region, leading to a tough morning commute for many.

 

Rail service took some time to recover across the region. Amtrak had suspended service during the storm on several routes, and one train from Chicago to Boston got stuck overnight in Palmer, Mass. The 48 passengers still had food and heat, an Amtrak spokesman said, and were taken by bus on Sunday to their destinations.

 

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie reported that the state’s commuter rail system suffered “ much more significant damage than we had during Hurricane Irene.” Similarly, service was interrupted on several of Metro North’s commuter lines, serving New York’s northern suburbs.

 

Local officials in communities throughout New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire canceled public school Monday, and warned students and parents that some schools may need to stay closed for another day or two to allow enough time to clean up downed electrical wires and fallen branches.

 

WORSE THAN HURRICANE IRENE

 

The more than 800,000 who lost power in Connecticut broke a record for the state that had just been set by Hurricane Irene, Governor Dannel P. Malloy said. But this power failure was far more disruptive of daily life than the one caused by Irene, because without electricity, many homes no longer had heat, as temperatures remained below freezing in many areas through the weekend.

 

Peter Bloom, of South Windsor, shrugged and said, “I’m going to put another blanket on. What else can I do? At least I’ll save a few bucks on my electric bill.”

 

Many people found themselves forced to don sweaters and overcoats in their homes, or snuggle up near the fire on the gas stove in their kitchens.

 

Sherry Padva, 57, of Irvington, N.Y., in Westchester, said the power had been out from 6 p.m. Saturday. By Sunday night, she told the New York Times, “things were getting pretty rugged.”

 

Alexandra Massey, 33, of Teaneck, N.J., said, “The town looks like a war zone.”

 

Around Newtown, Connecticut, roads that were plowed soon became impassible again because the snow-laden branches and trees were falling.

 

The unseasonably cold temperatures brought by the storm also caused a premature end to the apple-picking season at the region’s orchards.

 

A LONG RUN OF BAD WEATHER

 

The storm was the latest in a long series of major weather events to hit the region over the past year. Communities from Maryland to Maine suffered through an unusually harsh winter last year, followed by a series of flooding rains and violent storms. In August, Hurricane Irene bashed the length of the North Atlantic coast and triggered record floods in northern New England.

 

Local officials, at this point, were at least  familiar with the emergency drill. They quickly opened community shelters, declared inaccessible roads closed, suspended regional transit services, and urged the public to exercise caution.

 

Local residents in Hollis, New Hampshire, eagerly left their cold, dark homes to attend a town hall meeting where, aside from the chance to consult with the town’s emergency management director, they were given access to heat, hot water and flushing toilets.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this story.