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Freak snowstorm slammed region 25 years ago today

Thursday, October 4, 2012
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Hazardous driving conditions arrived with the wet snow on Oct. 4, 1987. This motorist slid off Route 7 in Duanesburg; several other accidents happened during the day.
Hazardous driving conditions arrived with the wet snow on Oct. 4, 1987. This motorist slid off Route 7 in Duanesburg; several other accidents happened during the day.

— People anticipate the rustle of leaves in early October.

They do not expect the crackling of trees, heavy snow and power outages before Halloween.

Residents of the Capital Region experienced an unusual winter-in-autumn drama 25 years ago today. On Sunday, Oct. 4, 1987, an unexpected storm dropped 61⁄2 inches of snow in Schenectady and the surrounding area. Parts of the Catskills received as much as 20 inches.

Residents stashed leaf rakes and pulled out snow shovels, along with candles and blankets, as they monitored the weather forecast.

Margaret B. Moore, then Niskayuna town supervisor, heard tree branches — their leaves covered with wet, heavy snow — snap and pop.

“I said, ‘How are these trees going to survive? We’re going to lose these magnificent trees,’ ” Moore said. “You could go out and hear branches cracking, which is scary.”

The storm was scary, annoying, surprising and inconvenient. Snow-laden tree limbs bent and broke, landed on power lines and scattered them in the streets. About 200,000 Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. customers lost service, and police and firefighters spent hours running from one emergency to another.

The National Weather Service in Albany said it was the earliest appearance of snow in the area, breaking the record set by the storm of Oct. 10, 1925. The event is included on the weather service’s website, one of 19 celebrated major winter storms the Capital Region has experienced.

In 1987, it seemed as if everyone had something to say about the unseasonable weather.

• “There wasn’t much left in the fields. But we went out in the morning and picked it, just so we could say we picked corn in the snow,” said Keith Buhrmaster of Buhrmaster Farms in Glenville.

• “We’re getting about 100 calls every 10 minutes,” said Diane Velardi, a communications officer with the Colonie Police Department.

• “We are all booked — and if I had a penny for everyone I’ve had to turn away, I’d be rich,” said Barbara Rotundo, desk clerk at the Schenectady Inn on Nott Terrace.

• “If we weren’t out checking arcing wires, we were out picking up downed tree branches,” said Patrolman William Stone of the Rotterdam Police Department.

• “Thank God this didn’t happen in the dead of winter when you could have people freezing to death,” said Nick Lyman, a spokesman for Niagara Mohawk.

Historic event

Neil Stuart was out in the snow. Stuart, now a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, was in his sophomore year at the University at Albany. The meteorology student knew October snow was a big deal; friends took pictures of him smiling in the swirling flakes.

“This storm just totally destroyed any records of earliest snow and most snow in October,” Stuart said. “This was just such an unusual event.”

A mass of very cold air set the stage for the October surprise.

“As heavy precipitation was falling into the colder air, it helped drag that colder air to the surface,” Stuart said. “Once the colder air reached the surface, all that precipitation — in the form of snow — was at the surface. It started as rain and it changed over to snow as that cold air was dragged down by the frozen precipitation.”

With just slightly warmer temperatures, the snowstorm would have never happened. It would have been just a long, cold autumn rain.

“One or two degrees is all it takes to change a rainstorm into a snowstorm, and vice versa,” Stuart said.

October snow is not such a big deal in some places.

“It’s a little more frequent in the mountains and higher elevations like the Helderbergs, the Catskills, the Adirondacks,” Stuart said. “So there is a higher frequency in the higher elevations. But actually getting it here to Albany, in the Mohawk Valley and Hudson River Valley, that’s pretty tough to do.”

Driving became dangerous during the ’87 storm. A 74-year-old Amsterdam man was killed when the car he was driving collided with another vehicle on Route 29 in Galway. Two other people, in Columbia County, were killed when trees fell on their cars. A Niskayuna police officer, Kathy Dudley, escaped injury when a tree fell across the hood of her car while she was on duty.

Moore said nobody had been expecting snow.

“The plows didn’t have their plows on; they were still in leaf-collection mode,” she said. “I thought, ‘They’re not going to be ready,’ but they got out there. They got ready.”

People were driving without snow tires, generally a mid-November or early December notion. “Usually, the first snowstorm of the season brings more accidents because people are not used to dealing with snow,” said Schenectady Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco, who was a captain with the department when the 1987 storm made the news.

Outages aplenty

Al Chieco was also on the job, as a line supervisor for Niagara Mohawk, now a division of National Grid.

“I remember waking up that morning to crackling trees,” said Chieco, current director of the electric network strategy in New York state for National Grid. “The roadways were very difficult that day to get in, and I remember not even making it into headquarters here in Albany. I ended up off Old Niskayuna Road because of the wires down everywhere, trying to figure out what was going on in regards to the circuits out there.”

Power company officials knew they needed help. Niagara Mohawk crews from Buffalo, Syracuse, Watertown, Utica, Potsdam and Saranac Lake traveled to the Capital Region. So did teams from Rochester Gas and Electric, Consolidated Edison, Boston Edison and other power companies.

Patrick Stella, a spokesman for National Grid in Albany, said 100,000 customers had their lights back on within two days. “We had outages that persisted through the week and into early the next week,” he said.

Chieco remembered working 10 days straight. He also remembered a quick return to milder, autumn conditions.

“It got warm,” he said. “The first day we were trudging through the snow and it was difficult and travel was awful. By day two, what you were standing in wasn’t there anymore and it was warm, good working conditions for the crews, and it was really good for the folks affected by the loss of power. They weren’t cold, like they would have been in a winter storm.”

There was plenty of work.

“We had a huge amount of tree damage, so there was a great need for tree-trimming crews to come and clear the way for line crews,” Chieco said. “We had a large number of conductors down due to the trees and the weight. We had a great deal of broken crossarms [at the tops of power poles] due to the weight of the trees, and we also had many poles broken, which would leave the pole down as well as some transformers down. It was slow going, because where a lot of your rear lot poles were, it was a climbing situation and there was hand-digging holes in the backyards to set new poles.”

Stella said power crews installed 75 miles worth of new power lines and replaced 400 transformers.

“In one week, we installed one third of the power poles we normally install in the entire year,” he said.

Meteorologist Stuart said weather watchers learned a lesson 25 years ago.

“From a meteorological standpoint, it was kind of a landmark storm because it really accelerated the research into these kinds of storms,” he said. “Before Oct. 4, this type of a storm was relatively unknown. But because of how unusual the storm was and the destruction, it really prompted a lot of the meteorological community to study these kinds of storms, and we’ve gotten much better at predicting them because of this particular storm.”

Stuart said current weather patterns do not reveal any October snows — nothing like last year’s late October nor’easter that dumped more than 25 inches of snow in parts of New England. The Capital Region got some but nothing outrageous.

“Now, we can get snow in November,” Stuart said. “In fact, it has been quite some time since we’ve had a pretty good snowstorm in November. Not to say that it’s going to happen this year, but as you head closer and closer to winter, the odds of getting snow increase.”

 
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