CAPITAL DISTRICT — It is seldom to see six inches of snow knock upstate New York down to its knees, but when such a storm hits unexpectedly in early October, the results are disastrous.
Today (Wednesday, Oct. 4) marks the 30th anniversary of a freak winter storm that blanketed the Capital District, Hudson River Valley and surrounding hill towns with more than six inches of snow. Residents of the Hudson Valley poetically call the event “Snow Leaf” conjuring the sight of heavy, wet snow settling upon trees that had yet to lose their foliage for the fall. A beautiful sight subsequently turned problematic.
Poestenkill-native Vito Ciccarelli recalls returning home that day as “entering the Twilight Zone.” The 88.3 WVCR-FM radio host was driving back home from Boston in his Camaro. Like everyone else on the road, he was without snow tires.
“I decided to bypass the highway for the trip home and take the scenic route,” said Ciccarelli. “As I was coming over the big hill coming out of Rhode Island, into Connecticut , it was like entering the Twilight Zone — cars all over the road, stuck in the snow.” His return home took hours longer than anticipated, and once, “I get to my road … telephone poles, and electrical wires were down all over. Took almost a week before I could get back in my home.”
According to the National Weather Service, snow measuring from three inches to two feet covered a relatively small corner of New York state that included the Catskills, Helderbergs and neighboring Berkshires. Felled trees not only knocked out power to an estimated 175,000 people but also caused significant property damage throughout the region. Local schools would be closed for up to a week.
Local meteorologists were left to explain how the storm went unforecasted. WTEN’s Greg Playford explained to his viewers that evening how the storm had swelled off the coast of New Jersey. Instead of advancing off to sea, it slowed and intensified, drawing moisture from the ocean while pulling cold air from the north.
The Albany County Airport was closed and diverted air traffic for most of the day as it dealt with its own power outages. The longstanding rivalry between Albany and Troy was set aside as the Capital City’s two daily newspapers sought help from the Collar City. A joint issue of the Knickerbocker News and Times Union was produced out of the offices of the Times Record.
Former Times Union writer Michael Eck recalled visiting his family’s Slingerlands home a few days after the storm.
“By the next morning things were weird,” said Eck. “Power out. Everything closed. When I visited home, by bus to Slingerlands, a few days later, I found that a tree had come through the back of the house, creating an ersatz free air conditioning. Won’t forget that storm. Nope.”
Community leaders quickly turned their concerns to the elderly. Several volunteer fire houses and local schools turned to emergency shelters. Spotlight reporters Tom McPheeters and Katie Biggerstaff shared the story of an unnamed 97-year-old Slingerlands woman. The Orchard Street resident lived alone, and said she was on the “verge of hypothermia,” before she was found by Caroline Wirth of the Bethlehem senior citizens office.
“I think they saved my life,” she said.
Spotlight contributing writer Linda Anne Burtis shared a diary full of tongue-in-cheek anecdotes of her family’s experience in the paper’s Oct. 14 edition. With a subhead reading “Pioneering spirit wears thin,” Burtis shared tales of family time by the fireplace, fast food dinners and frequent trips to the basement to bail out water.
“Visited a friend in Altamont,” wrote Burtis on Wednesday, Oct. 7. “It’s unfair that they have power and so much of Delmar is still living a blackout nightmare. The hardy rural folks should have been at the end of ‘the pile, not us soft suburbanites.”
The Elsmere Fire Department was one of several firehouses kept busy. When then-Lt. Peter Merrill estimated his unit usually annually fielded 120 calls to pump flooded basements, he told The Spotlight his volunteer firefighters pumped out 110 basements that week alone.
The 6.5 inches of snow recorded at Albany International Airport on Sunday, Oct. 4, 1987 remains as the earliest snowfall (more than a half-inch). An estimated 1,800 Niagara Mohawk crew members helped restore some semblance of normality once power returned before the end of the week. Nonetheless, the events of the week left an impression on an expatriate of Texas.
Jennifer Jaskolka’s family had only just moved to Slingerlands from Houston in 1987. The present day Ravena Coeymans Selkirk teacher said, “I wanted so badly to move back to Texas after that.”
Kaitlin Lembo contributed to this article.
Michael Hallisey is Managing Editor of Spotlight Newspapers.