Looking back at a blizzard’s hard landing throughout the Valley
Anna Romaro shines a flashlight on the pizza options so customers can choose slices at Pinnocchio's on Main Street in Northampton, where pizza was made Sunday despite the power outage.
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Downed wired in Hadley.
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The sun rises over Northampton the morning after an early snowstorm that left millions without power throughout the Northeast. Purchase photo reprints »
By Friday, Oct. 28, 2011, weather forecasters had noticed cold air funneling into New England from Canada and the storm brewing off the Carolina coast. They predicted a big storm.
It had already been a freak year for weather. New England received record snow in January, passed a warm early spring and the Springfield area was hit by tornadoes June 1. Tropical Storm Irene drenched the region Aug. 28 and weather systems brought 80-degree temperatures in October. Nationally, the Mississippi River flooded in the spring and Texas experienced record drought in the summer.
When the first snowflakes started falling on Hampshire County on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 29, 2011, residents didn’t realize that the weirdest weather of all was about to hit.
By the time the blizzard roared by on Sunday, 3 million homes and businesses had lost power in Massachusetts. Roads were blocked by trees that had toppled because the cement-like snow weighed down their limbs, which were still bright with leaves. In the Hilltowns, there were fewer power losses but massive amounts of snow, with more than 30 inches falling in Plainfield.
At a Red Cross shelter in Northampton, 146 people stayed over on Sunday night.
The storm was blamed for 20 deaths along its path.
“The amount of snowfall alone in this time of year is epic, but with the major outages and tree damage, it’s historic,” said meteorologist Dan Brown.
Perhaps the scariest time came after midnight Sunday, as howling winds caused trees, already weakened by Irene, to collapse in people’s yards. Craig Allaben and Rebecca Fisher of Amherst said they slept in their living room because they were worried about a tree falling on their bedroom.
“We didn’t sleep much,” said Allaben. “We could constantly hear the cracking and popping of trees falling in the woods.” One tree branch did fall on a corner of their roof.
A year later, Shumway Tree and Landscaping of Belchertown is still getting calls from customers asking for help clearing away branches broken in the blizzard, said owner Earle Shumway. “I don’t know when it’ll be over,” he said.
As people woke up on Sunday morning a year ago, they saw the paralysis caused by the storm. Most houses in the Pioneer Valley had no power and those who ventured past the snowblowers to get gasoline for a generator or a cup of coffee were usually disappointed.
Some businesses were open. In Northampton, Pinocchio’s Pizza on Main Street, with its wood-fired ovens cooking away, had a long line of people waiting at the counter. Hungry Ghost Bread on State Street, which uses a wood-fired stove, did a brisk business.
In Amherst, Rao’s Coffeehouse had no power except the fuel of cold coffee and day-old bagels, though the atmosphere was festive. At A.J. Hastings, the stationery store that has never closed because of the weather, two owners sold newspapers in the dark and without heat. Boyden & Perron sold lots of generators and chainsaws.
Many businesses lost revenue that week. Customers couldn’t reach them, in many cases they could accept only cash, and restaurants had to discard food that had spoiled without refrigeration. Insurance companies faced a blizzard of phone calls on Tuesday, as power began its slow return, from customers wanting to know if their policies covered tree damage to houses and cars.
The University of Massachusetts, which has its own power source, was closed on Monday but reopened Tuesday. The Campus Center became a de facto shelter, and snack bars there served twice the usual number of customers. Cold and hungry homeowners checked into hotels.
In an attempt to keep warm, some people tried to fire up their outdoor grills or burn charcoal briquettes indoors, and at least 15 people were admitted to Cooley Dickinson Hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning. Nancy Morris of Hatfield died of it.
As of that Monday, 1.8 million customers were still without electricity in Massachusetts and on Tuesday 450,000 were still without power. As of Wednesday morning, 28 percent of Amherst was out, along with two-thirds of Belchertown and Leverett. By Tuesday, 1,200 people had taken refuge at Belchertown High School. Nerves were starting to fray.
“People are losing their patience, and so am I,” Gov. Deval Patrick declared Wednesday. “The utilities are just going to have to step it up.”
Most schools in the region were closed all week, using up most or all of their snow days six weeks before the onset of winter. On Monday, Oct. 31, the whole thing seemed like a big Halloween prank, as many towns postponed trick-or-treating.
The storm became known on social media as “Snowtober.” It was one of the earliest snowstorms on record, and Massachusetts weather forecaster Bill Simpson tried to take the long view.
“I’m sure that 15,000 years ago in the Ice Age they had more snow,” he said.