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Snowstorm takes a rain check; April nor'easter heads for the hills, leaving metro area wet, green

What was billed by some as the second coming of the "October Surprise" in the Buffalo metro area materialized into an "April Fooled."

Residents weren't the only ones who fell for Mother Nature's latest tomfoolery.

While many scrambled late Sunday to cast away already broken-out yard equipment, grills and lawn chairs, the Weather Channel dispatched star weatherman Jim Cantore to Western New York.

Highway crews re-equipped fleets of snowplows. The American Red Cross mobilized volunteers. Anxious commuters slept restlessly. And fruit farmers held their collective breath.

Throughout the weekend, forecasters amped up their predictions as a springtime nor'easter battered the East Coast and headed inland. That culminated in warnings late Sunday projecting up to 9 inches of heavy, wet snow in the metro area that would damage already foliated trees, cause widespread power outages and imperil travel.

As Monday wore on, instead of talking about a monster storm, Cantore interviewed Santa Claus -- who was found in Orchard Park wandering amid some snowflakes. Snowplows were spotted driving around in the rain with their blades raised. The morning and afternoon commutes found roadways in the metro area a little wet, but otherwise unimpeded.

Then, the head scratching ensued. Where was all that snow anyway?

The answer was a metaphor suited for the entire winter: It headed for the hills.

"Really, all the higher amounts were confined to the higher elevations," said Shawn Smith, meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "In a lot of the low-lying elevations, it just didn't get cold enough."

"The higher you go up in the atmosphere, the colder the temperature is."

Those higher elevations, away from the major population center, were forced to deal with a reduced form of those dire prognostications. Instead of measuring the snowfall in feet, it was kept to inches. But it fell nonetheless.

Just before 8 p.m., the top snowfall -- 8.5 inches -- was reported about 10 miles southeast of Portageville in Allegany County. Another spotter, at an elevation of 1,850 feet just west of Warsaw, reported 7.5 inches. Other totals included 6 inches near Ripley and 3.5 inches in Perrysburg.

By contrast, a spotter in Kenmore reported a mere 0.2 inches of snow. The snowfall total at the Weather Service station at Buffalo Niagara International Airport was 0.8 inches. That figure was still enough, however, to tie a record for the date set in 1927. It was possible the record would be eclipsed in the final few hours Monday as snowflakes fell.

"We really shouldn't focus on the snowfall amounts," said meteorologist Tony Ansuini. "We just need a few inches to cause quite a significant impact."

Chautauqua County sheriff's officials were still assessing whether a fatal two-vehicle crash early Monday morning in Cherry Creek was weather-related. Dispatchers said later Monday the weather was blamed for "a ton of accidents" around the county.

In the fatal crash, police reported that a car driven by George A. Bowser Sr., no age listed, of Cherry Creek, was headed north on Farrington Hollow Road just after 7 a.m. when it collided with a car driven by Timothy M. Dolling, no age listed, also of Cherry Creek.

Police said Dolling's vehicle apparently crossed into Bowser's oncoming traffic lane. The collision caused Dolling's vehicle to flip and land on top of Bowser's car. Bowser died at the scene.

As for power failures, as of about 8:30 p.m. Monday, National Grid reported 612 local customers without power, with 251 in Genesee County, 131 in Chautauqua County, 128 in Cattaraugus County and 102 in Allegany County. Power was expected to be restored by midnight.

New York State Electric & Gas reported 710 Erie County customers in the dark in the towns of Aurora, Boston, Colden, Concord, Holland, Sardinia and Wales, with 139 more customers out in Allegany County.

Highway crews throughout the area were well aware of the predictions and were ready for battle, if necessary.

"The guys were looking forward to it, but they didn't get any overtime again," quipped Mark Wegner, Cheektowaga highway superintendent. "The taxpayers will like it, though."

Wegner said crews -- which, because of the otherwise warm spring, have already milled 20 streets in town and were to begin paving Monday -- quickly shifted back into winter gear, if only for a day. Front plows were re-attached to town trucks.

As of late Monday, the plows were still waiting to move snow.

"We definitely didn't get what they said," Wegner said.

Smith makes no apologies.

"We'd rather cover for it and have it turn out OK, than the other way around," said Smith, adding that it gets tricky this time of year when, among other things, the sun's angle in the sky can heat things up just enough to make snow into rain.

"This was a very challenging storm being the time frame that it happened -- late season," Smith added. "We were able to nail the forecast south of Buffalo in the higher terrain. We felt a lot more confident."

Meanwhile, area fruit farmers, who have already endured an inauspicious start to the growing season, kept close tabs on the forecast and braced Monday for another hit.

"The buds are dead," said Dan Sievert of Lakeview Orchards in Burt. "Financially, it's a disaster."

Recent freezes killed 90 percent of Sievert's cherry crop and two-thirds of his apple crop, but, by Monday, there was a glimmer of positive news: Temperatures Sunday night and Monday didn't drop low enough to further threaten the apple crop.

"Actually, we needed that rain real bad because it was really dry, and the ground was starting to crack," said Oscar Vizcarra of Becker Farms in Gasport.

Whether the storm spared the area or not, some local readers on still didn't seem amused that meteorologists' big hack at the plate resulted in a foul ball.

"The problem with the weather people is one day they may actually be right about a coming storm, but because they are wrong 99% of the time, no one will take them seriously," wrote one Amherst woman.

Another reader, from Buffalo, infused some of his own hyperbole: "I thought the apocalypse was coming this morning with the news coverage. Just happy to see my neighborhood was still standing when I looked out the window."

News Niagara Reporter Charlie Specht contributed to this report.