Rare snowstorm wreaks havoc in US

2011-11-01 07:35

Massachusetts - Hundreds of thousands of people across the northeastern US faced days without heat or lights after a freak October snowstorm over the weekend, and many towns postponed Halloween revelling on Monday in what seemed like a mean prank to some children.

From Maryland to Maine, high winds and wet, heavy snow brought down trees, branches and wires Saturday and Sunday. Snowfall amounts ranged from less than inch in some places to 81cm in the small town of Peru, Massachusetts, in the Berkshire Mountains.

The storm was blamed for at least 21 deaths, including one in Canada, mostly caused by falling trees, traffic accidents or electrocutions from downed wires. Eight people died in Pennsylvania alone.

Families huddled under blankets and winter coats at home or waited out the crisis in shelters as utility crews struggled to fix power lines brought down by the storm. Hundreds of schools closed, giving youngsters one of the earliest snow days on record.

'Big disaster'

"Such a small storm but such a big disaster," said Marina Shen, who spent Sunday night with her husband and dog at a middle school in Wayland, a Boston suburb of 13 000 where half the homes lost power. Just a few centimetres fell in Wayland, and most of it had melted by Monday, but overnight temperatures fell below freezing.

More than three million homes and businesses in the Northeast lost power at the height of the storm. By Monday night, that number was down to around 2.2 million.

Some of the same areas were hit hard by the rainy remnants of Hurricane Irene just two months ago, but in many places the utility damage was worse this time. The trees had yet to lose their leaves and captured all too much of the snow.

"The leaves on the trees have made whole trees and huge branches come down and taken down more wires," said New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. "It's a huge challenge for everybody."

With the temperature rising again, the storm's effects will probably outlast the snow itself.

Little comfort

Christie said he expected 95% of the 375 000 customers in New Jersey without power to have it back by Thursday, though he knew that would be little comfort to people shivering in the dark.

"I know if you are without power today, Thursday seems like a long time from now," he said.

Companies brought in crews from other states to help, but with lights out and live wires down all over the place, many communities urged children to skip trick-or-treating or at least postpone it until later in the week.

Mercedes Hidalgo of Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, was disappointed the street would be too dark on Monday night to hand out candy for Halloween.

"I have all the candy since probably three, four weeks ago that I bought it, but honestly, what I did - in the dark, with my flashlight - I was eating chocolate all night to try and warm up," she said.

Budget nightmare

Besides ruining Halloween, the storm was turning into a budget nightmare for cities and towns already dealing with the costs of Irene.

"There's no question that most municipal budgets are past bending and into breaking," said William Steinhaus, the top elected of official in Dutchess County, in New York's Hudson Valley, which got nearly 60cm of snow. "Whether it's fuel money or overtime money or salt and sand material items, those line items are all stretched or broke at this point."

Steinhaus also questioned why the New York Department of Transportation wasn't better prepared for the storm after state police had to help more than 100 drivers who got stuck on Interstate 84 and the Taconic State Parkway early Sunday.

Judd Everhart, a spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, said the agency spent more than $2m of its $26m snow-removal budget on keeping state roads clear during the storm.