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CLOBBERED Surprise storm leaves WNY reeling 3 deaths, blackouts, closed streets and downed trees spark state disaster declaration by Gov. Pataki

The worst October storm in Buffalo's history, a cruel Friday the 13th joke, mercifully moved out of town yesterday, leaving behind a heartbreaking legacy of downed trees, lost power and a double whammy of snow and flooding.

The surprisingly early lake-effect storm, and its bizarre mix of thunder and lightning, finally relented, but only after 390,000 homes lost electricity, tens of thousands of trees had been damaged and three people died.

The Columbus Day storm dumped nearly 2 feet of snow, the sixth-biggest snowfall ever in a 24-hour period, and forced the closings of schools, businesses and a 105-mile stretch of the New York State Thruway from Rochester to Dunkirk.

"In the 137 years of records we have here in Buffalo, we've never seen anything like this," said meteorologist Tom Niziol of the National Weather Service in Cheektowaga.

Buffalo and its first ring suburbs -- Kenmore, Tonawanda, Snyder and Eggertsville -- absorbed the hardest hits; a utility spokesman said it may be four days or more before electricity is restored to every home and business. In the city alone, 70 percent of the homes lost power.

"Mother Nature sure threw the people of Western New York a curveball on Friday the 13th," Gov. George E. Pataki said after touring storm-ravaged communities.

There were at least three storm-related fatalities, including a man struck by a falling tree branch while shoveling outside his home on Campbell Boulevard in Getzville. Police did not release his name. "His wife heard a crack and saw him get hit," said Capt. Michael Melton of the Amherst Police Department.

Police said two people died in traffic accidents -- one in the town of Lancaster and the other, a state trooper from Fairport, who died in Niagara County.

The damage, from downed power lines to fallen trees, was bad enough that Pataki declared a state disaster emergency and called in the National Guard, as well as state work crews from as far away as Syracuse. The governor and the region's congressional delegation also called on President Bush to declare the area a federal disaster and free up money for both governments and individuals.

By late Friday morning, weather-savvy residents already were digging out from the biggest early season snowstorm in history, and bracing for a long weekend without heat, electricity and phone service.

"Just have to wait it out," said Robert DeWald, a Gorton Street resident who lost power Thursday afternoon. "We'll fire up a couple of candles and throw some logs on the fire and listen to the radio."

Thousands of people found refuge in the dozens of fire halls and schools that opened as shelters, while others traded their homes for a hotel with room service.

About 700 National Grid work crews were expected to hit the streets today but, even with that massive effort, utility spokesmen said it may take three to four days -- or longer -- before everyone has power again.

For those who stayed home, the only option was to bundle up in warm clothes, light a few candles and search for an alternative source of energy.

In Amherst, the commodity in demand Friday was not just heat and electricity, but also water.

The need stemmed, in part, from a power failure at an Amherst water treatment facility that caused concerns about water service. The Kaleida hospital network responded by ordering 10,000 bottles of water as a precaution.

"All of our patients are safe," said Kaleida spokesman Michael Hughes. "We have power, food and water."

Virtually every town, village and city hit by the storm declared a state of emergency or driving ban. Buffalo's driving ban was lifted at midnight Friday.

Travelers, many of them unfamiliar with Buffalo's extreme weather, found themselves struggling to get out of town. For much of the day, both the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the Thruway and the U.S.-bound lanes on the Peace Bridge shut down.

"I knew it snowed a lot in Buffalo, but I wouldn't have dreamed something like this could happen in the middle of October," said Charles Wagner, a Chicago businessman waiting for a flight home from his first ever trip to Buffalo.

"Will I come back?" Wagner asked. "Not anytime soon, and only in the summer."

It was, in the words of one veteran meteorologist, an unprecedented weather event and one that caught everyone by surprise, leaving forecasters red-faced.

As the storm approached Thursday morning, forecasters at the National Weather Service agonized over the situation. They wondered if the atmosphere would turn cold enough to turn the rain to snow and, later in the day, their worst fears came true.

Like a hurricane that feeds off warm tropical waters, this storm found much of its fuel in Lake Erie's 62-degree temperatures.

It also came armed with a southwest wind that took direct aim at the region's most densely populated area -- Buffalo and its northern suburbs -- and then stalled for roughly 16 hours. The storm was not accompanied by low temperatures: the low during the heavy 24-hour snowfall was only 32 degrees reached at 5 a.m. Friday.

Forecasters predict that today and Sunday will be snow-free, although rain is in the forecast. The high today will be about 48 degrees and Sunday it will hover around 50 degrees.

News Staff Reporters Gene Warner, John Bonfatti, Maki Becker, Helen Jones, Emma Sapong, Lou Michel, Nancy Fisher, Patrick Lakamp, Brian Meyer and Sharon Linstedt contributed to this report.


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