* Dateline: Amherst, New York. Thursday, October 12th, 2006. Early evening.
It was a dark and stormy night.
Really, it was.
Snow was lightly falling. This was typical for Western New York, one of the inherent advantages of living next to one of the world's largest and most effective air conditioners, Lake Erie. It was not especially typical for early-mid October, even here in an area which is legendary for snow. I went outside to see what it was like and whether or not I'd have to shovel so that my wife could park when she got home from work. It wasn't a typical snow. It was warm, wet and gloppy. It stuck to my eyelashes and mustache. It formed little decorative lace-like frosting patterns on my beard. Perfect snowball-making snow, the kind that you can hit someone in the back of the head with and watch it slowly slide down his back under his shirt. I decided not to bother shoveling, largely because I'm lazy and that it was now coming down heavier, meaning that any shoveling I'd do would be overrun by new snow in about five minutes.
Before I went back into my house, I looked up at the trees overhanging from the neighbors yard. They were large maples and tall, gangly willows, arching over my little house like a drunk hangs onto a wall to keep from falling over. They were great shade during the summertime, blocking the sun from the south. They were also full of leaves which had not yet fallen. The snow was coming down harder and wetter.
It was at that moment that I knew this night was going to get very, very ugly.
My wife came home, looked around and came to the same conclusion that I did. We weren't going anywhere for a while. Not listening to our own advice, we went out to dinner, leaving the teenagers at home to fight over the computer, as they often do. Smokey Bones had a small crowd that night because people were staying in. The food was overpriced but still warm, tasty and filling. The first sign of trouble was when the massive collection of televisions along the walls started freaking out. The satellite dishes were covered with the wet, gloppy snow and couldn't find the street, much less a satellite a few hundred miles in the air. A few minutes more and power went out on the whole street. The restaurant had a generator so we still had lights but we decided that that was enough. We trundled off the half-mile or so back home.
The power in the entire neighborhood was out. The kids told us that it went out about five minutes after we left. It would not come on again for eight days. All through the night, trying to stay warm in what was now an unheated house in the middle of a snowstorm we heard the groaning of the trees as the wet snow piled on top of the still attached leaves. No one could sleep. The trees were crying.
The trees were dying.
On the morning of Friday, October 13th, we went outside and saw our town literally transformed overnight. Trees lay shattered everywhere you could see. The huge maple came down on my car and laid down in the heavy snow that had piled on top of it. Huge branches from the willow were now resting on my roof. Next door, another large tree had split in half vertically down the middle of the trunk. Roads were impassable because of the downed trees. Electric, telephone and cable television wires lay in the street after snow-laden trees had crashed into them. I wandered down Emerson Drive and North Bailey Avenue, headed to the Wegmans to see if I could buy some extra supplies. Every single tree was either already dead or severely damaged.
Listening to the radio, the damage was widespread: from as far south as Orchard Park to as far north as Lockport, trees were down everywhere in northern Erie County and southern Niagara County. Over a million people were without power and with no prospects to get it anytime soon.
The next day, a representative from FEMA was here to attempt to assess the damage. When interviewed for the radio, he showed the typical ignorance and contempt for this area that out-of-town officials and media commonly show, publicly wondering if Buffalo was in Erie County, sort of like asking if Manhattan is in New York City. Eventually, the region was hesitantly declared a federal disaster area, but no one who lived here could really tell and the promised public support never arrived. We were considered a disaster in name only, as a sop to political convenience for local congressman Tom Reynolds who was in the political fight of his career.
The most noticeable relief efforts came from electric companies that National Grid had contracted from other companies all across the northeast. Our own power was restored by a crew from New Hampshire on the morning of Saturday, October 20th. In the meantime, we played games, read books and slept a lot. We borrowed a generator from a friend to run our sump pump as we had six inches of water in our basement. It had to be pumped twice. We lost about $250 worth of food and about $1000 worth of damaged property in the basement. Fortunately, for some strange freak of nature, neither the house nor the car were damaged at all.
The oddest thing is that storm didn't last. By the afternoon of Friday the 13th, it was already over. The weather turned warm, the snow melted into people's basements, the sun was shining brilliantly...and there were tons of kindling in the streets that used to be trees. Estimates from officials say that 20% of the region's trees were destroyed outright with severe damage to 90% of the remainder, with the damage most heavily concentrated in the western and southwestern portions of Amherst, right on top of me.
The Buffalo News called it "The Night the Trees Wept." They were wrong. You can't weep when you're dead. This was no common storm. This was Arborgeddon.