October Surprise

A freakish fall storm wreaks havoc, but brings a community together

By Arthur Page
Kasey Weinert (left) and Nicholas Finoia remove a tree branch from the yard of a Lisbon Avenue home, as UB students mobilized to help their neighbors in the University Heights neighborhood clean up after the surprise storm.

Kasey Weinert (left) and Nicholas Finoia remove a tree branch from the yard of a Lisbon Avenue home, as UB students mobilized to help their neighbors in the University Heights neighborhood clean up after the surprise storm. (Photo by Nancy J. Parisi)

EVEN THOUGH SNOW was in the weather forecast, it still came as a big shock when heavy rain quickly turned to heavy snow, as a cold front passed through the Buffalo area on the afternoon of Thursday, October 12, 2006.

The wet snow pelted the region, including UB’s campuses, accumulating quickly on the ground, on cars, on trees and on power lines. Branches on trees—still covered with leaves—began to sag under the snow’s weight, then bend, then snap. Giant limbs and even entire trees started crashing to the ground, sometimes pulling power lines down with them.

It was still afternoon and the storm that the local news media subse-quently christened the “October Surprise”—because of its arrival a few weeks after the official beginning of fall—had only just begun its assault on the Buffalo area.

As the storm continued, the weight of the snow alone caused some utility poles to bend and snap. Traffic lights, as well as nearby apartments, homes and some buildings on the South Campus, lost power. Meanwhile, traffic on roads leading to and from UB’s campuses was bumper-to-bumper. By early evening, drivers on side streets proceeded with extreme caution, swerving to avoid falling limbs and those already blocking roads.

Snowfall continued through the night, and soon the freakish storm was the subject of national and even interna-tional media attention. In fact, Friday set a record for the snowiest October day recorded in the 137-year history of the Buffalo Weather Service. For many, the storm was an eerie experience, punctuated by thunder and lightning and the disturbing sounds of major tree limbs cracking and snapping from trees before they crashed to the ground. When residents of Buffalo and surrounding suburbs awakened on Friday the 13th, nearly two feet of heavy snow covered the ground.

While a few neighborhoods maintained power, nearly 400,000 customers in Western New York had lost electricity. For many, it would be at least a week until power was restored. In some areas, phone and cable service remained out for more than two weeks. And as part of this historic event, “tree damage was the worst in memory, especially to the lush vegetation in the many historic parkways and parks in the Buffalo area,” the National Weather Service commented.

Life at UB, too, came to an immediate halt. Classes were cancelled and university offices were closed on Friday and the following Monday. While University Facilities staff had both campuses ready for business as usual on Monday, a second “snow day” was called in respect of local driving bans.

UB engineers are looking at how tiny, nanoscale sensors could make power systems far more resilient to devastating storms like the “October Surprise.” To read more about their research, go to the UB Reporter story Monitoring Power Systems 24/7.

The storm downed thousands of trees, including these in front of Hadley Village on the North Campus.

The storm downed thousands of trees, including these in front of Hadley Village on the North Campus. (Photo courtesy of the Spectrum, Christopher Caporlingua)

Just as the “Blizzard of ’77” was forever etched in the memories of UB alumni who were in Buffalo at the time, the “October Surprise” is likely to have similar prominence for the more than 27,000 students enrolled at UB for the fall semester. The two meteorological events, however, were highly dissimilar. The blizzard that paralyzed Western New York in 1977 occurred in the deep of winter, with chilling winds, seven-foot snow drifts and sub-zero temperatures. In contrast, temperatures climbed into the balmy 50s in the days immediately after the “October Surprise.” The sky was blue and the sun shone brightly. Even so, while the snow began to melt, UB and the rest of the Buffalo area began to cope with—and more fully comprehend—the storm’s devastating effects.

Bans on driving were instituted in the City of Buffalo, Town of Amherst and other suburbs for four days and longer. Those who ventured out in the immediate areas around the North and South campuses quickly discovered that most traffic signals were out. All major intersections reverted to being four-way stops.

While some were able to escape to safe havens with friends and family outside of Buffalo, most UB students found themselves coping in Buffalo. Those living on campus—particularly those residing on the North Campus where backup generators maintained power except for a short time on Friday—were the most fortunate. On the other hand, off-campus residents typically were without power, phone and cable for days after classes resumed on Tuesday, October 17. Many of them “crashed” with friends living on campus. The Student Union remained open around the clock for several days to provide warmth and shelter to students living off campus. Food Services staff maintained campus dining facilities throughout the ordeal, providing sustenance even to students who were not on a meal plan.

The university began returning to normal on Saturday, October 14, when limited shuttle bus service between the campuses was reestablished, and the Undergraduate Library on the North Campus reopened. The football game between UB and Miami University of Ohio, originally scheduled for October 14, was played the next day in UB Stadium.

With classes cancelled, UB students were among those who pitched in to help clean up post-storm debris, particularly in the University Heights neighborhoods near the South Campus.

UB students Ryan Eastman and Deann Hofer (foreground) help remove debris in Delaware Park, where trees were heavily damaged by the storm.

UB students Ryan Eastman and Deann Hofer (foreground) help remove debris in Delaware Park, where trees were heavily damaged by the storm.

The undergraduate Student Association (SA) organized students to participate in neighborhood clean-up efforts immediately after the snowstorm. The following weekend, SA marshaled the services of 200 students to assist the Olmsted Parks Conservancy with efforts to clear brush and downed tree limbs in Delaware Park, where it’s estimated that more than 90 percent of the trees experienced storm damage. Similarly, members of the Graduate Planning Student Association in the School of Architecture and Planning and students in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences partnered with the Street Synergy Community Association to help clear downed tree limbs on properties in neighborhoods along Bailey Avenue.

The university also reached out to the community, offering a hand to government officials, school districts and community organizations. For instance, UB loaned a power generator to the Town of Amherst water pumping station and provided critical refrigeration and freezer space for food supplies to local school districts impacted by power outages. The North Campus was offered as a staging area for the National Guard, who had been deployed to the region by New York Gov. George E. Pataki. Students in the Law School joined with the City of Buffalo’s corporation counsel to assist low-income Buffalo residents in processing storm damage claims and applying for governmental assistance. UB’s athletics facilities were made available for high school and community youth football games that otherwise would have been cancelled.

“UB is an integral part of the community and wanted to assist our community partners in areas where we could lend a hand and have an impact,” notes Marsha S. Henderson, UB vice president for external affairs.

As a good neighbor, UB extended efforts to solve major problems for municipalities and school districts, while touching the hearts of some of Buffalo’s least fortunate residents and creating lasting memories that might even eclipse those of the “October Surprise” for little-league football players who found themselves playing in UB Stadium on a clear October evening.

Arthur Page is assistant vice president for news services and periodicals at UB.

To read alumni accounts of Buffalo weather events, see Repeat the Question.

Related Reading: Stormscope