Autumn, interrupted… the 10-year anniversary of the October Surprise Storm

On October 12th, 2006, the Buffalo area was hit by a very dramatic snowstorm. At about noon, wet, heavy snow began falling. After a few hours, the snowfall had become quite substantial. Because it was still early autumn, the leaves were still on the trees. In fact, most of them were green. Before long, limbs began falling off of trees. Approximately two feet of snow fell that day.

Driving bans were instituted in Buffalo,Tonawanda, and Amherst. In Amherst, 80 percent of the roads were determined to be impassible. The damage to trees by this storm was compared to the damage to trees caused by hurricanes. In the City of Buffalo, 90 percent of all of the trees had suffered some sort of damage as a result of the storm.

By Friday, October 13th, many communities had lost electricity, due to so many trees crash landing on power lines. For some of those communities, including parts of the City of Buffalo, electricity was not restored for more than ten days. On October 13th, Governor George Pataki declared Erie, Niagara, Genesee, and Orleans counties to be disaster areas. Later, President George W. Bush also declared a federal state of emergency for the areas that were affected by the October Surprise storm.

Since then, an organization, Re-Tree Western New York, has planted many replacement trees, both in Buffalo and in its suburbs. The goal of that organization, which was formed early in November of 2006, was to replace the approximately 30,000 trees that were lost during the October Surprise storm. Replacement plantings started on arbor day in 2007. As of today, 28,112 trees have been planted.

Today, on October 12th, 2016, it is sunny and warm and the October Surprise storm is just a bizarre memory of how random weather can appear to be.

Below is an article that I wrote for the Island Dispatch about my own experience with the October Surprise storm. It is titled “A Harrowing Housesitting Experience.”

Painting autumnal trees was the theme of artist Virginia Kelley’s watercolor class at Stella Niagara, in Lewiston, on October 12th. While at this class, I learned how to use paintbrushes and sponges to give the effect of red, yellow, and orange leaves. Although the class was not painting in an actual outdoor scene, our paintings reflected the reality of the world outside, at that moment.

After class, Virginia took me to my friend Ellen’s house in North Buffalo, where I was to housesit for the weekend. As we traveled south, the reality of the world outside underwent a drastic alternation. The sky abruptly darkened, and large snowflakes started falling.

After Virginia returned to Niagara County, I took out the garbage, prepared dinner, and went to choir practice at Blessed Sacrament Church on Delaware Avenue. Afterward, choir director Frank Scinta drove me back. Ellen’s street had become a terrifying sight. Broken tree branches lay everywhere, even in the middle of the street. I got out of the car and could hear tree branches snap and crash to the ground. I ran to indoor safety.

In the morning, the telephone jarred me awake.

“Do you have electricity?” a neighbor asked.

I clicked on the lamp, which did not light. “No.”

Once I awakened, I photographed the street scene. Tree limbs were strewn everywhere. I went into the dining room and saw a tree limb leaning toward the back window. I didn’t recall that there had ever been a tree in the back yard. I looked again and noticed that this tree was actually the top of the neighbor’s tree, which had bent into Ellen’s yard.  “There is a tree on the power lines,” told a National Grid employee. She made out a work order.

I fed the fish, ate sandwiches, drew pictures, and cleaned the bird cages. Outside, the wind screamed. At night, I tried to write in my journal, but my fingers were cold and the flashlight didn’t help much. I crawled under the comforter and slept.

On Saturday morning, the house temperature was 54 degrees. Outside the snow was melting, leaving puddles amidst the pile of branches and debris. I fed the birds and fish. I tried playing the piano while wearing gloves. I wondered what was going on in the world. It had been two days since I had heard the news or read a newspaper. Fortunately, I still had telephone service. Ellen called shortly before dark and said that she and her children would come soon to pick up the birds. She didn’t want me to develop hypothermia. Go home, she said. Tomorrow, I said. After I feed the birds.

Those two birds were amazing. They still sang, despite the chill and darkness. My sister, Vivian, who called a few times to give me tips on avoiding hypothermia, said that she would pick me up early on Sunday afternoon.

Darkness came early. I covered the bird cages with towels, and I went to bed.

In the morning, I tried pulling a tree branch from the driveway with no success. I rolled the empty garbage bins away from the street. Vivian arrived and brought me back to Grand Island. She told our parents that Ellen’s street looked like “an atom bomb hit it.” I felt very lucky to be able to go to a warm house, where I could eat hot food and read at night.

In my art bag, I carried with me paintings of trees that looked peaceful and whole, with colorful and bright leaves. I wondered  if the broken trees of North Buffalo would ever again resemble those paintings.

0 thoughts on “Autumn, interrupted… the 10-year anniversary of the October Surprise Storm”

  1. Jane Porterfield

    Love the story, but not the event. It's unexpected events like this one that are making me push for people to get educated and prepared. Those people who had no electricity for 10 days could have benefited from having generators and an emergency food supply.

    Thanks for posting this as it's a great reminder of how unpredictable life can be and how important it is to try to prepare in advance by having a great disaster or emergency plan in place.

  2. The Gratitude Guru

    I went to school in Rochester, NY and we got hit with a couple bad storms during the time I was up there. I remember having to sleep at the airport one night as I was trying to get home for Thanksgiving break. The school was closed for break (I think) so I had to stay there. Fortunately, we had heat, unlike you!

    Storms up in that part of NY are nothing like what I experience down here in NJ now.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. This is one of the non-fun parts of living where we do, although, thankfully, we haven't had a surprise storm here in a while. I remember a bad surprise storm in the Catskills back in the 1980's in mid-October, with up to 20 inches in some areas. Fortunately, we weren't impacted in Binghamton. We don't have a generator. Hopefully, we'll never need one. Neither did my mother in law, and she used to lose power all the time where she lived downstate; it became a major worry for us, living over a hundred miles from her. And now, please don't remind me of winter again!

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