Century-old, healthy trees were leveled by the weight of the season’s first ice storm, blocking major roads, smashing into houses, bringing down power lines and, in one case, crushing a passing car.
The Capital Region spent the day trying to dig out, fighting not only the continuing ice but also the crashing trees and downed power lines that cut service at the height of the problem to nearly 300,000 utility customers.
“You could hear the trees and limbs cracking. At that point, I knew it was pretty bad,” said Clifton Park Supervisor Philip Barrett, who toured his town at 4 a.m. and then declared Clifton Park’s first state of emergency in decades.
“This storm is something we’ve never seen before, a storm with this much destruction,” he said. “Not only secondary routes but many major roads were dangerous or completely impassable. It wasn’t just the little branches falling in the road, it was whole trees. … There were just trees everywhere.”
In the city of Schenectady, trees fell on two houses and just missed dozens of others. But several suburbs were even harder hit.
In Glenville, a tree fell on a car traveling down Maple Avenue near the Air National Guard base. The road remained closed into the evening with the tree on the abandoned car.
Niskayuna had so many downed trees that major routes were still closed after sunset Friday, while Schenectady’s roads had mostly reopened, with trunks and branches neatly stacked by the side of road.
Trees pulled down power lines throughout the Capital Region, and some wires fell from the weight of the ice alone. Nearly 300,000 homes and businesses lost power, and at 7 p.m. power was still out for 200,000, according to National Grid. The damage was particularly noticeable in Clifton Park, where the retail core that normally would be bustling was dark and silent.
The storm also knocked out power to about half a million customers in New England. By sundown, there were still 250,000 without power in Massachusetts, 8,600 in New Hampshire and 2,800 in Rhode Island.
In the Capital Region, half of Schoharie County’s households spent a frigid day without power. More than half the businesses and homes in the city of Schenectady were in the dark as well, and power was out for thousands in the suburbs.
The damage was so severe that National Grid held an hourlong conference call with every mayor and supervisor in the area at 4 p.m. to warn them that power may not be restored for days.
Some towns opened warming stations and shelters as early as 6:30 a.m. But in Schenectady County, only one shelter had been opened before National Grid’s conference call. Afterward, the city quickly opened warming stations at SCCC and the main branch of the library. The fieldhouse at Union College is now a temporary shelter, as is the Scotia-Glenville High School.
But apparently Capital Region residents are a hardy lot. Shelters did not see strong demand Friday evening. Instead, residents lined up at gas stations to fill gas containers for generators and crowded into stores to pick up kerosene, a common fuel for space heaters. Lines were particularly long in Schoharie County.
Schenectady Mayor Brian U. Stratton said many city residents should prepare to spend the weekend without power. As of Friday night, 15,000 homes and businesses in the city were without power, as well as 6,000 in each of the surrounding suburbs.
“We’re hopeful … we could see some power restored in certain parts of the city as we speak, and in fact we have seen some come back. But by and large the bulk of this is going to be a multi-day event,” Stratton said.
National Grid brought more than 1,300 tree and line crews to restore power, bringing in help from its Long Island and Buffalo sections and tapping assistance from as far away as Michigan. The company was able to double its crews over the course of the day, but as workers surveyed neighborhoods, they found more and more areas without power. The number of houses and businesses in the dark rose steadily all day even as workers restored power to other locations.
“The damage is quite extensive, and we estimate full power will be restored after several days,” company spokesman Patrick Stella said.
The ice storm, which begin Thursday evening and intensified overnight, led to the early closure or cancellation of almost every school in the Capital Region. High school sports games were cancelled, but the show went on at local concert venues. Revolution Hall in Troy spent much of the day advertising the fact that it had power and would not be cancelling the popular Donna the Buffalo concert scheduled for Friday night.
Despite the trees and the ice, there were no critical injuries reported during the storm, Ellis Hospital spokeswoman Donna Evans said.
Crews extend hours
The biggest danger now comes from exhaustion, Schenectady officials said. Fire Chief Robert Farstad was trying to rotate out firefighters who had worked 16 or more hours of overtime. Schenectady’s Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen said early Friday he was so busy dealing with the storm’s after-effects that he had not been home in 36 hours.
At the fire department, Deputy Chief Rod Rosate said the department was about to break its record for the most calls in one day.
“I think we’ve done like 300 calls,” he said just after 6 p.m. “Everybody’s just kind of punch drunk.”
The previous record was Jan. 19, 1996, when the department answered just under 300 calls. That was a day of cold rain that swamped the area and triggered a mudslide that wiped out Tel Oil on Broadway and killed Thomas Frank of Amsterdam.
Friday’s calls were frustrating as well as exhausting because firefighters so often had to wait for hours for National Grid to cut power to downed lines.
“There were just so many down. There’s only so fast they could go,” Rosate said. “So we stood by for hours next to live wires because they were popping onto the ground or into the air.”
Even in emergencies, it took a long time for National Grid to reach the power lines.
It took the company 30 minutes to cut power to Tony’s Market when a downed wire set fire to the store. The business was destroyed while firefighters waited.
Meteorologist Bob Kilpatrick of the National Weather Service in Albany said the ice storm dumped 2 inches of liquid precipitation — rain, sleet and snow — on the region and three-quarters of an inch of solid ice.
A half-inch of ice “amounts to a lot of weight,” Kilpatrick said, and is enough to break tree limbs and snap power lines. In some areas, where the soil is still soft, it is enough to uproot trees, he said.
Meteorologist Brian Frugis said the right conditions occurred to create the ice storm, which he called a rare event. “Rain combined with extended cold temperatures created it,” he said.
The last ice storm to cripple the area was about a decade ago, Kilpatrick said. That storm left parts of northern New York and southern Canada without power for weeks.
Kilpatrick said temperatures will plummet today into the mid-teens and to zero in higher elevations. The weather may cause slick road conditions but no further problems. “The rain is already frozen,” he said.