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Power may be out another week Massive cleanup effort begins in storm's aftermath

Hundreds of thousands of area residents spent a third cold night without heat and electricity and woke this morning learning that it could be another week or more before power returns.

Just a day after promising service would be restored in three to four days, National Grid reversed itself and said the massive restoration effort may take until next weekend.

Officials from National Grid and NYSEG told county leaders that all customers cannot expect to be back on line until midnight a week from today.

More than 1,000 workers in the field are doing everything they can to restore power as quickly as possible, utility executives said, but they emphasized again the extent of the power failure is unlike anything they have ever seen here.

"By any measure, it's the most significant storm damage we've ever experienced in Western New York . . . and that goes back well over a hundred years," William F. Edwards, National Grid distribution president, told reporters.

That was not welcome news for hundreds of thousands living in homes without heat, enduring three nights of mid-30-degree temperatures and facing at least two upcoming nights with similar forecasts.

The dismal outlook for homeowners came just hours after utility executives expressed hope that as many as half of the 240,000 National Grid customers still without power could see it restored by sometime today.

Later in the day, that hopeful forecast turned gloomy.

"We know that's a huge inconvenience," Edwards said of the nine to 10 days some people may wait before electricity is restored.

One of the reasons for the delay is National Grid's initial emphasis on addressing what Edwards called "life-threatening issues" such as power
problems at hospitals, emergency centers and water and sewer treatment facilities.

He also dispelled claims that the hundreds of work crews are giving priority to more affluent customers.

"We try our best to not show any favoritism," Edwards said Saturday.

The region's other major electric utility, New York State Electric & Gas, said 95,000 of its Erie County customers, as well as 1,500 in the Lockport area, were still without power Saturday.

NYSEG said it would be Tuesday, maybe later, before all of its customers have power back on. The utility also advised people to stay away from downed power lines.

"It may be a matter of life and death," said Bill Ransom, director of regional operations. "Even lines that appear dead may be deadly."

>Storm takes its toll

Downed power lines are just one aspect of the life and death fallout from the worst October snowstorm in Buffalo's long history.

More than 160 people, most of them children, were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning at local hospitals Friday and Saturday. Most of the cases stemmed from the improper use of stoves and generators inside people's homes.

"One of our biggest fears is that people will fire up generators without proper ventilation or keep the gas oven on to keep them warm," said Scott J. Zimmerman, director of the Erie County Public Health Laboratory.

Health officials also issued one other warning. As a precaution, they urged customers of the Erie County Water Authority to boil their cooking and drinking water because a local pumping station was temporarily shut down.

City, town and village officials spent much of Saturday assessing the damage to their beloved tree population. And with that came shocking new estimates of the damage to the region's oaks and maples.

In the Town of Tonawanda alone, more than 50,000 trees are believed to have been downed or damaged by the storm.

Town Clerk Cal Champlin said the town has about 30,000 trees on its public rights of way, a figure that would double and maybe triple if it included the trees on people's front lawns and backyards.

"We're estimating one-half to two-thirds of those trees suffered damage," Champlin said Saturday.

A few residents have wondered what's taking the town, village and city highway crews so long to get to their homes, but Tim Tempeny, who was driving a front-end loader on Colvin Boulevard in Kenmore, and others said most have been patient.

Kevin T. Stocker, the Kenmore village prosecutor and a Colvin resident, came over to ask Tempeny if he wanted a cup of coffee.

Stocker was upbeat in the face of the storm, as he and his wife, Christy, worked to clear broken tree limbs and tried to figure out how to safely operate their chain saw.

"I'm just hoping to not lose any appendages this weekend," Stocker said.

The dramatic change in Erie County's landscape seemed to break most hearts.

"One of the things that drew us to buy this house was the trees on Bidwell Parkway," said Curt Maranto, who moved to the West Side from Pasadena, Calif., five weeks ago. "It's so lush and green and beautiful. This is incredible. I'm used to earthquakes and that type of destruction, but this is hard to describe."

>Fear of flooding

The storm's fallout also included flooded basements and concern that local creeks may overflow because of Saturday's rising temperatures.

"We have a flood watch because of melting snow," said National Weather Service meteorologist Steve McLaughlin. "It's a precaution."

Lower -- but not freezing -- temperatures overnight were expected to slow the melting and help keep the creeks from flooding.

Warmer temperatures today should match Saturday's readings, and that should melt the rest of the snow in most places, McLaughlin said.

The loss of everyday services, things like convenience stores, restaurants and gas stations, took a turn for the better Saturday.

On Friday, hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses were closed because of power failures. That included about 60 percent of the area's NOCO Express Shops.

"You can't pump the gas tanks if there's no electricity," general manager Henry Bays said Saturday.

By late Friday and early Saturday, the situation had improved dramatically and the large majority of NOCO stores had reopened.

>Help from government

Western New York's congressional delegation also delivered some hopeful news Saturday, a welcome respite from the storm's devastation that left homeowners and businesses wondering if help was coming.

On Saturday, both Democrats and Republicans announced that local property owners stand a good chance of getting monetary assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA officials are expected to visit the region this week.

"The programs are good. They're pretty generous," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "The place where people run into trouble is, they say, 'I spent this amount of money,' and [federal officials] say 'show us.' "

Schumer's advice? Keep records of repairs to your home or business.

No amount of good news, of course, can offset the discouraging assessment offered by National Grid executives.

Eager to emphasize the historic nature of the storm's damage, they stood next to a map with a banana-shaped diagram showing the storm's path and its concentration in a relatively narrow corridor that included Buffalo and its northernmost suburbs.

"Most storms tend to move along and not have the accumulation of damage as intense as we've seen," Edwards told reporters.

Despite the extensive destruction, Edwards said crews did discover one piece of good news as they continued their field assessments.

Apparently, there was not as much damage to utility poles or utility towers as had been initially feared. Edwards said it's much faster to repair downed power lines than it is to deal with damaged poles and towers.

Reporters Gene Warner, Brian Meyer, Sharon Linstedt, Donn Esmonde, Patrick Lakamp, Niki Cervantes and Henry Davis contributed to this report.


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