Late-winter wallop shocks New England, upstate NY

Published 7:01 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A powerful storm stunned New England and northern New York with a late-winter wallop, burying parts of the region in more than 2 feet of snow, hampering efforts to reach a small plane that crashed after the pilot reported icing problems and dropping rain that swelled rivers and swept away houses.

The winter blast also stopped commuters in their tracks on ice-covered highways.

Maine officials said the plane, a four-seat Diamond DA-40, went down near the Canadian border Monday afternoon, killing one person and injuring another. State wardens had to use snowmobiles to respond to the area, where most of the logging roads hadn’t been plowed, said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Public Safety Department. A Canadian search and rescue helicopter reached the site Monday night and airlifted the injured person to a hospital in Canada.

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The storm pushed the seasonal snow total in notoriously wintry Buffalo, N.Y., an inch past 100. Burlington, Vt., registered its biggest March snowfall on record, at 25.8 inches as of Monday night. In southern New England, flooding closed roads and cut off neighborhoods as rain melted snow or fell on frozen ground with no place to drain but overtaxed rivers.

A mudslide in Greenfield, Mass., forced at least two families from their homes and buried cars, the Republican newspaper reported. In Newport, N.H., an adult and three children had to be rescued by boat when the Sugar River surrounded their home. The Housatonic River near Oxford, Conn., swept parts of two homes and two cars away, authorities said.

The storm’s severity shocked even the hardiest stock in New England, where in a nod to the inevitable coming of spring after one of the harshest winters in recent memory, stores had put grass seed on display. Instead, as the second week of March began, businesses closed and residents hunkered down yet again.

Amy Newman laughed about her disrupted routine as she struggled down Main Street in Montpelier, Vt., pushing a three-wheeled stroller and carrying her 3-year-old son, Wakeland.

“We tried going to the library, but it was closed,” she said. “Then we tried (popular local bakery) La Brioche, but it was closed, too.”

To the south, the weather was no laughing matter.

In Connecticut, flood warnings were issued for the Housatonic, Farmington, Still and Naugatuck rivers. About a dozen homes were evacuated in Danbury, and water was reported up to the first floors of homes in one neighborhood. Authorities considered evacuating an apartment complex for the elderly as water encroached.

Kent authorities reported that about 40 families in one area were cut off from main roads and their homes were being evacuated. In Southbury, officials reported more than two dozen evacuations, several homes underwater and a few mudslides. A mobile home reportedly was washed away after it was evacuated.

Officials in Plainville, Canton and Watertown asked state officials for hundreds of sandbags.

Parts of upstate New York were buried under more than 2 feet of heavy snow, combined with freezing rain, sleet and 30 mph winds. Schools closed and thousands of customers lost power. Part of Interstate 81 near Syracuse, N.Y., closed when tractor-trailers jackknifed on an icy uphill stretch.

The storm dropped 27 inches of snow on Westport, across Lake Champlain from Vermont, and Saranac Lake topped out at 29 inches, the National Weather Service said. More than 50,000 power outages were reported at the storm’s peak, most of them around Albany, N.Y.

A utility crew repairing downed power lines in the southern Vermont town of Baltimore was forced to leave because more ice-laden trees were coming down around them.

Even forecasters were caught off guard after most had called for about a foot of snow.

“We had almost a tropical air mass across southern New England that was trying to push north at the same time a polar air mass was trying to push south,” National Weather Service meteorologist Bruce Taber said. “It was that battleground that created this intense snowfall.”

The storm helped push the winter of 2010-11 up the record list. The 13 inches that fell in Syracuse, N.Y., made it the fourth-snowiest winter on record there, with a seasonal total of 173.5 inches compared with the record of 192.1, set in 1992-93. Rochester, N.Y., surpassed 112 inches of snow by Sunday, more than 30 inches above normal.

It’s the third-snowiest winter on record in Burlington, at 121.4 inches, and the latest storm dropped enough snow to top the Valentine’s Day blitz in 2007, when 25.7 inches fell, meteorologist Andrew Loconto said Monday night.

“It was also the snowiest snow storm ever to occur in Burlington in the month of March,” topping a record notched March 5-6, 2001, when 22.9 inches of snow blanketed the city, he said.

Mark Wysocki, a meteorologist at the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University, said the storm was just the latest in a string of storms spawned by a weather pattern that set up in November and is likely to remain in place for a while.

“We’re in a very active weather pattern where we have very cold air sitting over the Midwest and Plains,” Wysocki said. “It’s changed the storm track so storms are coming up the coast and tapping into a lot of moisture off the Atlantic.”  

And as residents clean up yet again, forecasters warned that they shouldn’t get too comfortable.

“The next storm is already shaping up over the Rockies and will be here by midweek with rain along the Hudson River Valley and snow through western New York, Ontario and Michigan,” Wysocki said.

Some New Englanders couldn’t be kept down.

Near the grass seed display at Aubuchon Hardware in downtown Montpelier, Tom Walbridge insisted: “Smile, folks — it’s coming.”