SOUTH WINDSOR, Conn. — A freak October snowstorm knocked out power Sunday to more than 3.2 million homes and businesses across the U.S. Northeast, with close to two feet (60 centimetres) of snow falling in some areas over the weekend.
The storm was even more damaging because leaves still on the trees caught more of the particularly wet and heavy snow, overloading branches that snapped and wreaked havoc.
“You just have absolute tree carnage with this heavy snow just straining the branches,” said National Weather Service spokesman Chris Vaccaro.
From Maryland to Maine, officials said it would take days to restore electricity, even though the snow ended Sunday.
The storm smashed record snowfall totals for October and worsened as it moved north. Communities in western Massachusetts were among the hardest hit. Snowfall totals topped 27 inches (68.6 centimetres) in Plainfield, and nearby Windsor had gotten 26 inches (66 centimetres) by early Sunday.
The storm was blamed for at least nine deaths, and states of emergency were declared in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and parts of New York.
Roads, rails and airline flights were knocked out, and passengers on a JetBlue flight were stuck on a plane in Hartford, Connecticut, for more than seven hours on Saturday.
More than 800,000 power customers were without electricity in Connecticut alone — shattering the record set in August by Hurricane Irene. Massachusetts had more than 600,000 outages, and so did New Jersey — including Gov. Chris Christie’s house. Parts of Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Maryland and Vermont also were without power.
“It’s going to be a more difficult situation than we experienced in Irene,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said. “We are expecting extensive and long-term power outages.”
Thirty-two shelters were open around the state, and Malloy asked volunteer fire departments to allow people in for warmth and showers. At least four hospitals were relying on generators for power.
Many of the areas hit by the storm had also been hit by Irene. In New Jersey’s Hamilton Township, Tom Jacobsen also recalled heavy spring flooding and a particularly heavy winter before that.
“I’m starting to think we really ticked off Mother Nature somehow, because we’ve been getting spanked by her for about a year now,” he said while grabbing some coffee at a convenience store.
Vaccaro, the weather service spokesman, said the snowstorm “absolutely crushed previous records that in some cases dated back more than 100 years.” Saturday was only the fourth snowy October day in New York’s Central Park since record-keeping began 135 years ago.
There usually isn’t enough cold air in the region to support a snowstorm this time of year, but an area of high pressure over southeastern Canada funneled cold air south into the U.S., Vaccaro said. That cold air combined with moisture coming from the North Carolina coast to produce the unseasonable weather.
The storm did less damage in coastal areas than it would have in winter because warm ocean temperatures limited snowfall, Vaccaro said.
A few businesses enjoyed the early snow: Ski resorts in Vermont and Maine opened early. But it was more commonly an aggravation.
Many residents were urged to avoid travel altogether. Speed limits were reduced on bridges between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A few roads closed because of accidents and downed trees and power lines, said Sean Brown, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
The JetBlue passengers stranded at Hartford’s Bradley International Airport were on a flight from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Newark, New Jersey, that had been diverted. Passenger Andrew Carter, a football reporter for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, said the plane ran out of snacks and bottled water, and the toilets backed up.
JetBlue spokeswoman Victoria Lucia said power outages at the airport has made it difficult to get passengers off the plane, and added that the passengers would be reimbursed.
There were other flight delays in the region over the weekend, and commuter trains in Connecticut and New York were delayed or suspended because of downed trees and signal problems.
Amtrak suspended passenger train service on several Northeast routes, and one train from Chicago to Boston got stuck overnight in Palmer, Massachusetts. The 48 passengers had food and heat, a spokeswoman said, and they were taken by bus Sunday to their destinations.
Three people died in Pennsylvania because of the storm. An 84-year-old Temple man was killed Saturday afternoon when a snow-laden tree fell on his home while he was napping in his recliner. In suburban Philadelphia, an SUV spun out of control on an icy freeway, crashed through a guardrail and plunged down an embankment, killing two people early Sunday.
In Connecticut, the governor said one person died Saturday in a Colchester traffic accident that he blamed on slippery conditions.
In New York, a 54-year-old Long Island woman died Sunday morning after she lost control of her car on an icy road and struck another vehicle. Two New Jersey residents were killed in the storm.
An elderly Franklin Lakes man died late Saturday in a house fire sparked by a downed power line. On the Hamburg Turnpike in Wayne, a Haledon man died after his vehicle hit a parked utility truck hoisting a worker inside a bucket who was mending power lines. The worker suffered minor injuries.
And a 20-year-old man in Springfield, Massachusetts, stopped when he saw police and firefighters examining downed wires and stepped in the wrong place and was electrocuted, Capt. William Collins said.
The snowstorm was even blamed for a death in Canada. Authorities say road conditions, no seatbelt and high speed were all factors in the death of a driver on eastern Prince Edward Island. Heavy rainfall and snow soaked parts of Atlantic Canada as the storm churned northward.
The snow was a bone-chilling slush in New York City, and was a taste of what’s to come for demonstrators camping out at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan for the Occupy Wall Street protest.
Nick Lemmin, of Brooklyn, spent his first night at Zuccotti in a sleeping bag in a tent, wearing thermals, a sweatshirt and a scarf.
“I slept actually pretty well,” he said. “It was pretty quiet.”
Lemmin said he thought the early snow was actually “a good test,” giving protesters a chance to deal with such weather before it sets in more permanently.