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10 years ago: A 'giant crunching noise,' the sound of calamity

Larry Williams can’t forget the sound of breaking trees.

“It was this giant crunching noise, like a distorted firecracker,” said Williams, recalling the surprise October 2006 storm that devastated the treescape across Buffalo and other Western New York communities.

Ten years later, he still remembers.

“The branches were exploding everywhere,” the East Side resident said. “Pop, pop, pop – it just kept going on and on. I had never heard anything like that in my lifetime.”

[Photos: October storm, then and now]

The lake-effect snowstorm’s early arrival accounted for the havoc. Leaves were still on branches when the water-laden snow began falling on Oct. 12 and into the next day, bending and breaking branches and straining trunks.

The snowfall reached 22.6 inches at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, shattering by nearly four times the previous record set in 1909.

An estimated 57,000 trees were lost on public streets and parks in Western New York, according to Re-Tree WNY, which formed to replant the downed trees. Paul Maurer, the group’s chairman, estimates three or four times that many may have come down when factoring privately owned trees.

The storm created chaos in other ways, too.

Electricity was knocked out for hundreds of thousands of people. Officials closed a nearly 110-mile stretch of the New York State Thruway. Many streets were impassable for days. And numerous travelers, including children on school buses, were left stuck on vehicles or stranded for hours by the surprise storm.

Bob Stricko, an East Amherst resident, was almost one of them.

“I drove my Corvette to work that day, and had to drive back in that snow and ice,” Stricko said. “It was a very slow drive, and a lot of tire spinning.”

He remembers checking the weather forecast that morning, and not seeing anything that alarmed him about the drive home.

Stricko’s house was without power for almost a week due to the storm. A neighbor’s basement flooded after the sump pump lost power.

“Our next-door neighbor drove all the way to Erie to buy a generator because he couldn’t find one locally,” Stricko said.
Hurricane-like damage

The storm presented a major challenge for municipalities.

Patrick Lucey, Amherst’s superintendent of highways, worked part-time in the department during the Blizzard of ’77.

The October 2006 storm, he said, was far more difficult because of the amount of brush and branches and trees that clogged roads.

“By far and away, that was the most paralyzing situation this town has ever faced,” Lucey said. “It was one of the biggest challenges ever in Amherst.”

Streets in Eggertsville and Snyder were hardest to clear because the trees there were larger and more mature. Workers in the highway department plowed and cleared roads in 15-hour shifts that switched to 12-hour days for the rest of October, all of November and into December. Outside contractors were brought in, too.

“This was well beyond the scope that any municipal government could do alone,” Lucey said.

Buffalo also used contractors to help the city’s public works department remove debris.

Commissioner Steven Stepniak was a senior engineer at the time. He said the October storm presented more problems than the storm in November 2014, which dumped over three times as much snow in some areas.

The main challenges that needed to be addressed as quickly as possible, Stepniak said, were dealing with live wires, debris in the middle of roadways, damaged vehicles under fallen trees and making streets accessible for emergency services.

“It was the worst storm as far as volume that I’ve seen,” Stepniak said. “The November storm as a pure snow event was the biggest one we’ve seen, but as far as uniqueness there was nothing that compared to the October storm.

“If that storm happens mid-winter, there’s probably little impact,” he said. “It was the canopy that caused the problems.”

Stepniak said the Federal Emergency Management Agency compared the damage to a Category 2 hurricane.

Adding to the unusual storm was the quick turnaround from when the snow fell to the time it began melting.

“We went from plowing snow to moving debris to monitoring flooding within 24 to 36 hours,” Stepniak said. “It was an adventure, for sure.”

Pulling together

Looking ahead, Stepniak said a municipality can try to be ready for an unexpected storm like the one 10 years ago, but there are limitations.

“They’re all different,” he said. “It’s just being prepared with companies able to assist city crews.”

While Stepniak remembers not getting much sleep during that time, he looks back fondly on the “cooperative effort, how everybody pitched in.”

That’s also what Stephanie Berghash remembers best.

Berghash, who lived in the Elmwood district at the time, said she loved how people came together during the storm to help one another and to help save trees.

“Americans are barn builders. They used to get together to build someone’s barn, and that spirit is in us and will never die,” Berghash said. “That’s what I saw. By coming together, it raised hope and optimism rather than standing there and feeling helpless.”

She said she and others saved one particular tree that a tree-removing company planned to take down.

“The tallest Dutch elm left in the city is on the corner of Windsor and Potomac. It’s splendid,” Berghash said. It was on the list to be cut down, and a company from Texas was supposed to do it. We stopped that one,” Berghash said.

Groaning, then a pop

For many people, their lasting memories of the storm revolve around the tree damage.

“I remember riding downtown and just being astonished by the damage I saw – how the ice had curved branches and bent them,” Phil Haberstro of Kenmore said.
Patty Ralabate of North Buffalo couldn’t believe the devastation the storm left behind.

“When I walked the neighborhood the next day, I thought this was what a war zone must look like,” Ralabate said. She, too, remembers the strange sounds from the weighed-down trees.

“I remember the eeriness of the creaking of the trees,” Ralabate said. “It was almost a groaning, and then a pop. You stood around and watched these branches just crack up and drop to the ground.”

It’s a sound Williams hopes he doesn’t hear again.

But he’s not making any bets.

“With global climate change, everything is possible,” he said.

Since then, Williams has helped bring trees back to his neighborhood by volunteering with Re-Tree WNY.

“We won’t see them fully grown in our lifetime, but at least for future generations there will be the greenery necessary to make it a healthy environment,” he said.

email:msommer@buffnews.com

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