Remembering Oct. 4, 1987, when Capital Region saw 6-plus inches of snow

Philip Minissale Jr. of Harriet Street in Colonie talks to a town firefighter during a blaze at his residence Oct. 4, 1987.
Philip Minissale Jr. of Harriet Street in Colonie talks to a town firefighter during a blaze at his residence Oct. 4, 1987.

Editor’s note: Our Jeff Wilkin revisited  the 1987 storm 30 years later, in 2017. This is his article from then.

HISTORY Tom Wasula remembers winter’s sneak attack.

“It started in the morning and continued into the early afternoon,” Wasula said Tuesday of the surprise autumn snowstorm that arrived Oct. 4, 1987. “We had a lot of tree limbs and power lines come down in my neighborhood. All you kept hearing was ‘snap’ and ‘boom’ with the tree branches coming down.”

Wasula, now a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany, was a teenager living in the Sycaway section of Troy when the wet snow fell 30 years ago Wednesday.

It was a record — the 6 1/2 inches of snow that fell that Sunday was the earliest measurable amount of snow in the Capital Region.

Snow-flecked trees and slippery roads were surprises for people who were still watching baseball games and planning trips to local orchards. Wasula believes if snow ever comes again in early October, people are going to know about it far in advance.

“With the higher-resolution computer models and observational networks, definitely the technology has advanced since 30 years ago,” Wasula said. “We would pick up on it sooner.”

People also will get weather news sooner, in an age when smartphones and computers provide constant updates.

CBS6 Chief Meteorologist Steve LaPointe said the meteorological community at the time knew a storm was coming and precipitation was expected. Changes took place in the atmosphere, however, and the changes were enough to produce snow — which had not been expected.

Even with updated technology, LaPointe practices caution.

“It’s much less likely that something like that would happen now with our technology, but it’s not 100 percent,” he said. “It’s the atmosphere and the atmosphere is never 100 percent. We’re pretty good and we can give people clues, but I would never say never.”

The 1987 storm knocked out power to 200,000 households and businesses in the Capital Region. A 74-year-old Amsterdam man was killed in a weather-related traffic accident in Saratoga County.

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In other places, transmission lines hit streets or drooped over pavement. Tree branches creaked under the weight of the heavy snow and snapped off. Cars slid off roads, traffic lights lost their colors.

In Amsterdam, a police officer said downed power lines and tree limbs had turned city streets into “spaghetti.”

Gov. Mario Cuomo took action: Albany, Columbia, Rensselaer, Dutchess, Greene and Montgomery counties were declared disaster areas. Schoharie County did not make the list, even though the county’s town of Gilboa reported snowfall as high as 17 inches.

People out in the snow had something to say, and made the Schenectady Gazette’s list of quotes:

  • “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,” Keith Buhrmaster of Buhrmaster Farms in Glenville said.
  • “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 former Schenectady Inn on Nott Terrace.
  • “If we weren’t out checking arcing wires, we were out picking up downed tree branches,” Patrolman William Stone of the Rotterdam Police Department said.
  • “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 the former Niagara Mohawk Power Co.

Nate Stone, a spokesman for National Grid, said the 1987 storm did not change company procedures.

“We still have the same events that come through here,” Stone said. “What has happened between ’87 and now — and I remember that storm, I was in high school, I remember being out of school for a week — we’ve spent a lot of time and money over the last 30 years building our infrastructure.”

National Grid, Stone added, also will monitor storms projected to hit the region.

“We keep people on just as a precaution so they’re ready to go in case something happens,” he said. “Hopefully, we don’t have to use them but they’re there if we need them.”

While baseball was wrapping up in 1987, football had just begun. Viewership for the NFL might have been down; the 1987 pro football strike had put dozens of replacement players on the field.

Some children and teenagers received the gift of an autumn snow day. Schools in the Schenectady, Albany and Troy districts called off Monday classes because so many power lines were down.

Other people in the state may have had to work on their days off. Hundreds of power-repair workers from as far as Buffalo traveled to the Capital Region to help return lights and heat to homes and businesses.

Wasula said winter-style storms have occurred out of season in the past. On Oct. 29, 2011, he said, 3.8 inches of snow fell. That year, according to weather service charts, 5.4 inches of snow fell during October.

The 22 1/2-inch Thanksgiving storm of Nov. 24-25, 1971, is the eighth largest snowstorm in Capital Region history.

Area residents endured a 13.3-inch storm on April 9, 2000. Snow has also fallen during deep spring: A 2.2-inch storm hit the region May 18, 2002.

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124, [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.

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