CAPITAL REGION — A record-breaking storm Wednesday afternoon left roughly 200,000 Capital Region customers without power, after falling trees ripped down power lines and blocked roads. Several school districts locally canceled school Thursday, stressing families and educators already dealing with pandemic restrictions.
The widespread outages were the most extensive in the region that power supplier National Grid has experienced in more than a decade, according to National Grid spokeswoman Virginia Limmiatis.
“The last time we would’ve seen 200,000-plus customers out and that widespread damage, probably was back in 2008 with the ice storm,” Limmiatis said. “This was an intense storm. We’ve been having crews work throughout the night and they’ll continue to be working under these challenging conditions.”
In some spots, the storm packed winds upwards of 70 miles an hour, according to Mike Evans of the National Weather Service station in Albany.
Winds were recorded at 68 miles per hour at Albany International Airport, which Evans said wasn’t an outlier; those wind speeds seemingly reached most of the Capital Region.
“The wind speed did break a record for the day,” said Evans, Albany’s science and operations officer for the weather service. “It’s definitely an unusual event. It would be a little bit more typical to see something like this in the summer, but really, to see this at any point in the year, I would consider it fairly unusual.”
The breadth of the wind reach was even more remarkable than the speed of the wind, Evans said. “What’s interesting about this case was that, “ it was a widespread area that got hit. So it’s hard to say what areas got hit the worst — Schenectady, Albany, Troy, they all got hit very badly. The whole Capital District did, up in Saratoga County to Mohawk Valley, toward Amsterdam.”
The storm claimed at least one life when a tree fell on a car in Saratoga County at the height of the storm Wednesday afternoon. William J. Oates, 24, died at the scene. An online fundraiser for Oates’ funeral services had raised more than $7,600 — well over its initial $2,500 goal — as of Thursday afternoon.
In the storm’s aftermath, cleanup crews from National Grid and local highway departments worked throughout the night and all day Thursday and into Thursday night in extensive cleanup efforts around the region.
The storm’s powerful winds also caused extensive roof damage to some buildings, knocked down power lines and filled many streets and roadways and highways with debris.
Peter Hudson, a Niskayuna resident, came home from work at 8 p.m. when he saw that a large oak tree, which had been there for well over 100 years, had fallen from the back of his lawn and broke through his roof.
“When I got home, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my house had power,” Hudson said, “but not so happy about the tree that had fallen and put two holes in my roof.”
After seeing the damage, he woke up at 6 a.m. Thursday morning and went chainsaw shopping. Unfortunately, those were sold out, so he opted for a Sawzall reciprocating saw and spent the day cleaning up. He said he wasn’t able to get help from a tree service until Sunday.
“I am still, to this minute, using my Sawzall, clippers and rake to clean up my yard,” Hudson said Thursday afternoon. “I had my parents and friend Jacob come over with his chainsaw and we’re starting to tackle [some] of the bigger logs now … I hadn’t even known [the storm] was going to pass until it was on top of us. It seemed to last only a few minutes but the damage is far more significant.”
In terms of power outages, National Grid was still working Thursday afternoon to restore power to the thousands of homes still without it. National Grid’s Limmiatis on Thursday said afternoon that while workers had already restored power to more than 70,000 homes Wednesday night, they brought in additional assistance to help with the rest.
“That’s a resource we pull the trigger on when we have an intense storm like this,” Limmiatis said. “In terms of our crew count, we have about 1,700 National Grid line, tree and service workers. We have brought in additional contractors to arrive [Thursday and Friday] to continue to support that restoration effort. So, we’re adding that complement of several hundred contractors.”
The hardest hit areas in terms of power outages on Wednesday were Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Columbia and Montgomery counties, according to Limmiatis. Some of these areas, she said, may not be restored until Friday afternoon because of the gravity of the damage.
By mid-afternoon, 6,900 customers remained without power in the city of Schenectady, said Mayor Gary McCarthy — including the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which was running on auxiliary power.
As homeowners continue cleanup efforts, the city has suspended the rules for picking up branches and yard material, including the requirement that branches must be under four feet long.
“If people can just get the material out to the curb line, we’ll pick it up starting Tuesday,” McCarthy said.
National Grid set up three locations to distribute dry ice to customers without electricity from the storm. Dry ice will be distributed from the Schenectady County Department of Engineering and Public Works Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Customers may also pick up dry ice from Troy’s Pittstown Rescue Squad and at Crossgates mall during the same hours.
“Company personnel will provide information on the proper handling of dry ice, and customers are asked to bring a small cooler or shopping bag to transport their dry ice home,” Limmiatis said.
New York State Electric and Gas Corporation also announced Thursday afternoon that 5,400 of its customers were without power in its company’s Mechanicville Division, including Rensselaer, Columbia, Saratoga and Washington counties. The company deployed 800 field workers statewide to support the cleanup. And while some of National Grid’s customers may still not have power into Friday, Limmiatis said their “first priority is ensuring the safety of our customers and crews by clearing away dangers.
“So, it starts with clearing those live, down power lines and then repairing transmission facilities like towers, poles and high-tension wires,” Limmiatis said. “And then it comes down to the recovery work of those local substations … all of that is about safety and making sure we follow that protocol.”
Without power, students across the Capital Region didn’t have much luck learning remotely, either. And for those attending in-person classes, school was interrupted again when some districts lost power. In response to the outages, Schenectady, Bethlehem, Guilderland and Mohonasen, were closed Thursday. Shenendehowa and Ballston Spa held classes.
“We lost campus power and internet so the only place we have power is at our primary school,” Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine said Thursday. “I waited until 9:30 p.m. [Wednesday] before making the decision to close school on Thursday. The clincher was a picture sent to me by our director of facilities which showed five power poles in a row with their tops damaged and the wires disconnected from all of them. This is the main power coming into our main campus so the likelihood of a quick repair is practically nonexistent.”
Another factor in closing school on Thursday was the fact that a third of the district’s students are currently remote, while another third are learning through the district’s hybrid model. With the internet completely down, Shine said they wouldn’t have access. And while Shine has had to close his previous district down for outage issues, he said it was “far less significant” than what Mohonasen dealt with Thursday.
Pete Demola contributed reporting to this story.