Buffalo Area Superintendents Battle an ‘October Surprise’

Laurie Mercer

The weather forecast for Oct. 12, 2006, called for 2 to 3 in. of the snow to fall well before the usual season in New York State’s notorious snow belt, but highway superintendents throughout the Buffalo area found themselves dealing with a nationally declared emergency instead. The 2 to 3 in. soon became 2 to 3 ft.

Because trees were in full fall foliage, the heavy wet snow brought branches, limbs, and power lines.

While 300,000 people survived without power for up to two weeks, the debris created a pile of chipped branches that is nearing 25 acres and 10 to 12 ft. high. Easily termed a “freak storm” and then called the “October Surprise” in the media, this is how half a half dozen of the hardest-hit-by-the-storm, highway superintendents coped.

Town of Tonawana

Bradley Rowles is the highway superintendent of Town of Tonawana, which was the epicenter of disaster and one of the towns hardest hit

“We have been chosen Tree City USA for six years now,” explained Rowles.

Rowles, who came to the department as a laborer following a famous blizzard in 1977, said some of the essential truths learned during that disaster have helped him cope with what the town has just been through.

“In the 1977 blizzard we utilized all of our department strengths by working together, and that’s what we did again,” he said.

“I asked for assistance and we ended up with about 300 people on the roads. By Monday [October 16], we got assistance, from the Canton School System with about 100 employees doing work around the schools. We mobilized the Parks Department with about 50 employees. We also had water and sewer volunteers and engineering tech support people.”

For added safety, Rowles said any volunteers without previous background with heavy machinery got a quick course, via videotape, on the safe use of potentially dangerous machines such as chippers.

Rowles said his town is actually larger than some cities in New York state. The Town has 27,000 homes and 67,000 residents.

His department is big, with 330 lane mi. of town roads to care for and 25 additional mi. of country roads on his work sheets and 140 employees on his roster.

It was the crew’s expertise with leaves, brush, and snow, backed by the right equipment that helped them beat their own deadlines for full storm recovery in just a few days.

On the first day of the storm, following the weather predictions, Rowles had eight salters out on the roads, taking their routine 4.5 hours to salt all town roads.

He said, “At 5:00 p.m. that day we went out to check roads and found we lost traction, so we sent the salters out.

“By 8:00 p.m. we were starting to run into problems because limbs were coming down and we couldn’t get down some streets.”

He called in additional crews just to keep a minimum of one lane open. All crews worked through the night.

“By Friday we put together a plan and we stuck to it,” he added. “Basically we put public safety first. We also thought it was very important that people be able to get to work Monday morning.”

“On Friday we spent the whole day with our plows and our people and every truck we had. We went out and made all roads passable with at least one lane for emergency vehicles. By the end of Friday we had 95 percent of the town done. We were all in here around the clock; we had no outside contracts.

“By Saturday and Sunday we wanted to have all roads open in both directions and all driveways accessible,” he explained. “Our plan called for debris removal beginning on Monday.

“We have 100 pieces of equipment and an 80,000 square-foot facility. We have lots of wheel loaders and four-in-one buckets. We also took the tailgates off lots of our trucks for brush piles,” Rowles said.

He rented some specialized equipment including two excavators on rubber tracks with grapples that he called “phenomenal,” and a rubber-tired wheel excavator with grapples that the department will use to help fell trees.

“We learned with the blizzard in 1977 to start recovery from the school grounds and work our way outward. We wanted kids back in schools because it was the safest place for them to be. There are 16 schools in our town. So we went around and cleaned up all the hangers —the limbs and branches hanging from trees.

By Thursday (Oct. 19), Erie County had stepped in and offered five crews of mostly local contractors with one group from another state.

More than 150 National Guard troops with dump trucks and high-lifts were called in to help. The National Guard members were posted to monitor the removal of debris.

“They did a great job,” said Rowles of the Guard. “We had about 20 reservists come into the highway department each morning to get maps of where each contractor would be.”

As for the debris itself, the Town of Tonawana used an old landfill in town for a staging area. Erie County has hired a contractor to take the chipped wood to the primary staging area — an old Bethlehem Steel site in Buffalo.

In the Town of Tonawana — home to 31,000 town trees, not counting those in the parks, there are an estimated 2,400 trees that are slated to be taken down.

“Things are going extremely well in the Town of Tonawana,” said Rowles. In fact, routine leaf pick up has resumed.

Town of Clarence

Ted Donner is the highway superintendent of the Town of Clarence, which now has 700,000 yds. of unseasoned mulch.

Donner has been highway superintendent for two years and in the department for the past 12, but he said even veterans of 30 years, “have never seen anything like this storm.”

His department of 33 people cares for 114 mi. of town roads and 75 mi. of country roads. He said the town’s habit of picking up brush helped them through the storm because, “All of our high lifts are equipped with buckets. We have our own horizontal grinder too that’s been in almost constant use.”

In just one day, Donner said 210 gal. of fuel were run through the grinder. The town has its own staging area for grinding and chipping and will try to get rid of the eventual 700,000 lbs. of chipped wood itself.

He said all disaster recovery was done without outside contractors until the debris removal.

“We did it all ourselves. On the 12th it hit and we worked overnight. Some people did 24-hour shifts, and some worked even longer than that.”

Many people in town were out of power for a week and some lost power for two weeks. The snow was so wet and heavy that it would not slide off the plows, causing the crews to have to clear out the intersections with high lifts to remove the snow that built up in front of the blades.

“I had everybody punch out Friday night at 7:00 p.m. When it got dark we gave them a little break. We had the roads open by then, in some sections it was one lane. And by the end of Saturday [Oct. 14], we had all the roads open. The department was without power for a week, but the generator kept everything operable.”

Donner said since most of his workers had no power at home he believed that it was important that they have time to take care of their own families.

“They were helping their neighbors and filling generators. We started again at 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning. I had everybody off on Sunday because they needed a break, and after that we started working 12-hour days, seven days a week,” he explained.

Two weeks following the storm, Donner maintained the same demanding schedule.

He said that the town of Clarence “didn’t write contracts with anybody.” Initially the state did send in 12 crews, but their equipment was inadequate to the task and workers weren’t seasoned working with brush. Erie County then came to the rescue with more recruits using outside contractors.

“You have to be very careful when it comes to being reimbursed,” Donner added. “Even the way you handle your loads has to follow the rules if you are going to be asking for a refund.”

National Guardspeople helped the Town of Clarence monitor loads.

“The National Guard are great to work with, and they have put a lot of organization into this,” he said.

“We rented a dump trailer from a local highway department in Royalton, which we now would like to buy,” said Donner. “We rented two loaders with four-in-one buckets. The excavator gets the grinding done more quickly.”

Coincidentally the town had already applied for a recycling grant to purchase a new excavator with a thumb.

“When we got to rent one, we knew how nice it works. It’s exactly what we need,” he said.

One of the advantages Donner experienced was that his equipment was fairly new and held up well in emergency overtime conditions.

At the town’s recycling center, formerly a Girl Scout camp called Thunderidge, the county had a grinder working right next to the town’s machine. While the county will haul all the ground chips, Donner is thinking creatively of the 700,000 yd. he expected to have on the ground when the work is done.

In previous years the department had successfully sold approximately 3,000 yds. of mulch, but Donner believes 2006 may result in an overabundance of mulch.

Town of Alden

Bud Milligen, highway superintendent of the Town of Alden, was trapped in his own driveway.

After being highway superintendent for 21 years, Bud Milligen thought he had seen it all but the October Surprise was like a hit upside the head — coming totally from left field.

It was late at night on Thursday, Oct. 12, when his electricity went out that he began to realize he might have a problem.

“I looked out the window and all I could see was a heavy covering of white. I barely got out of my own driveway,” said Milligen who lives only about a mile from the highway barn.

“The branches were breaking so fast you had to be careful of the wires that were down everywhere, and no street lights were working. You didn’t want to stop because you could hear them cracking. Their prediction for two to three inches became two to three feet of wet sloppy snow. It was terrible. And the storm lasted until the next afternoon, Friday the 13th.”

Milligen usually counted on a crew of four full-time people and a part time secretary to keep Alden’s 25 mi. of road, all of which got hit pretty hard, in good working order. By 3:00 a.m. the entire crew was on the road, until, as it turned out, 6:00 p.m. the following day.

“The crew was as much in awe as anyone,” he added. “It was just unbelievable.

“Frankly, we weren’t ready for this. We had to get the plows out and mount them. It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he said.

By the time he hit the roads, the village had attempted to get to the sewer plant by moving snow with a backhoe. It was hard to even keep one lane open. The fact that the leaves were still on the trees made everything heavier and hard to remove.

In Alden the power outages lasted for three days and more. Two weeks following the storm residents were still bringing branches and tree limbs from their back yards — creating yet another onslaught of debris to be removed.

“We have three 10-wheel dump trucks but no grapple attachments, which is what you really needed for this storm,” Milligen said.

Anticipating the true consequences involved in keeping the roads open, he first hired an outside crew of “about four to five people.” Then another company from Pennsylvania sent three crews of about two each.”

As of Oct. 26, Erie County had signed the necessary contracts with outside contractors for the final mop up and removal in Alden. As promised, the crew of six he had been promised had grown to 16 crews with inspectors on each truck.

“The town was in good shape by the weekend,” Milligen said.

Certainly one of the things on his mind was the fact that the village budget has no line item for this kind of additional help.

“We were watching that pretty close.”

Every superintendent in the area hit was in attendance at an important meeting in late October to receive instruction in the correct way to receive reimbursement from FEMA for the storm. The challenge for highway superintendents was to be sure they followed procedures in debris removal.

Meanwhile, the October Surprise is something to record in the log books. Just like the note in Alden’s highway department log on Oct. 19 at 11:55 p.m. when a citizen called to say that he thought they were “doing a great job on the streets.”

Village of Williamsville

Mike Parker, Commissioner of Public Works of the Village of Williamsville, is in charge of the village’s 32 mi. of highway, two county roads and one state road.

“Our Village was one of the hardest hit,” said Parker.

The storm hit Thursday evening, but the village managed to have Main Street business open and running with power by the following Monday. Parker said local restaurants responded by bringing free food and coffee to highway and utility crews at work untangling the village from downed power lines and debris.

Under ideal circumstances Parker’s crew is 12 full-time people. With help provided by the Erie County disaster command post, Williamsville’s legendary canopy of trees, much of which had fallen to the ground along with power and telephone wires, was quickly under assault by a volunteer crew and outside contractors.

At one point Parker’s crew was going full tilt along with 50 to 60 trucks of outside contractors, backed by National Guard members. Guard members went from initially moving branches and limbs of downed trees to the role of monitor. The debris was trucked to one of approximately 10 satellite chipping stations and, ultimately, the old Bethlehem Steel plant in Buffalo where the material will await its final destination.

“Erie County had a command post at the fire training academy, so every day I could talk to certain operations people,” said Parker. “What helped the Village of Williamsville immeasurably was when our engineer of record called me and asked if he could help by asking other counties to come to our aid. Within 24 hours, on the strength of a handshake, other towns like Niagara and Hartland and the Village of Lewiston, that hadn’t been slammed, had equipment and crews on our roads to help.”

Parker admitted he was a little uneasy about eventual reimbursement issues.

“We had reassurances that it would be declared a disaster,” said Parker, of the presidential sign off that finally took place.

“I had the support of the board and village administrator — we knew it was bigger than just us alone,” said Parker. “We kept them in the loop whenever a board decision needed to be made.”

Parker did rent an excavator and a track loader working with local businesses, United Rental and Admar Supply Company.

After only three years on the job, the October Surprise was a real eye-opener for Parker.

“No matter what size town or village you are, don’t be afraid to ask and to think outside the box. I never would have thought to call on Niagara County, and yet within an hour those towns geared up and were ready to hit our streets that night,” he said.

By the beginning of November, with the county still helping out, the village was ready to resume more mundane tasks like leaf pick up.

“We have an arborist coming in to reassess our trees while the county is doing lots of pruning and trimming.”

Parker said that an early estimate is that about one-fourth of the village trees will have to come down due to damage to them unleashed by the October Surprise.

Town of Amherst

Robert Anderson, Highway Superintendent, Town of Amherst — big-size town took a megawatt-size hit, yet residents give the highway crew a sense of “Pride in what we are doing.”

Anderson has a total of 29 years with the Highway Department — the last three as elected highway superintendent. The payroll is big—160 full-time people and the lane miles are long—320 town mi. plus 50 mi. to salt and plow for the county in the winter season.

“Because of the size of our town,” Anderson said, “with 117,000 people, if we were a city we would be the sixth largest in New York state.”

Anderson, like every body else in the area, got caught by this early storm completely unaware of what was in store.

“When the snow first came down we were sanding, but our predicted one to three inches quickly became a foot.

The first night of the storm his team went plowing and managed to do some damage to the town’s trucks while trying to open up the streets, at least one way, in a hurry.

“I made the order,” he said, “that we had to have one lane open for emergency purposes.”

Amherst, in fact, had an early fatality when a gentlemen out shoveling his driveway on was hit in the head by a falling limb and killed.

Another accident needing the fire department occurred when a resident attempted to cook on his charcoal grill in his basement. No lights or his landline telephone worked when the grill crashed and caught the rug on fire. Disaster-related accidents, like this one, tend to be short on foresight. Improperly used generators caused several deaths.

Once the snow quickly melted and sump pumps couldn’t work without electricity, lots of people added flooded basements to their list of storm-related miseries.

“One more day and another inch of rain and we would have been done,” Anderson said. “Creeks were at their brinks and everything had reached its saturation point.”

“The good news,” he added, “is that lots of residents came together and really helped us — they gave us pride in what we were doing.”

Anderson’s crew contains a forestry division, so he had the machinery and skilled chainsaw workers to get to any trees too large for conventional removal tactics.

“I knew from the outset that I had never seen anything like this before.The devastation was tremendous. It was unprecedented. My job is make sure the roads were open for police and ambulance. We could see from the damage that it could not be done without outside crews,” he said.

Anderson said the town supervisor finally put contracts nine days after the snow began to fall. By then Buffalo and the suburbs had been declared a national disaster area by President Bush. Anderson said as soon as the storm’s status made national news, four or five outside contractors contacted the town. In Amherst alone more than 360 trucks suddenly hit the road under Anderson’s direction.

“Some people went without power for a very long time,” Anderson recalled. “This was a major concern for us. They wanted their lights back on. Then the phone, the cable, and finally the brush picked up. The storm will cost an estimated $30 million, but citizens are worrying about getting their own yards picked up.”

By early November, he said the town was slowly returning to normal operations. People keep hauling tree debris from their backyards to the curb. The Town of Amherst’s inventory of trees stands at approximately 70,000. Anderson said about one quarter of them will have to come down, and he anticipates a public outcry over their loss. Part of Amherst’s planned recovery included 100 tree trucks and a private contractor.

“He’s going to take hangers and leaners — dangerous branches,” Anderson said.

“Everybody will have an opinion about these trees. I expect a large outpouring of emotion. A strong supervisor and a strong town board will have to educate the residents, but we expect nobody to be happy about it.”

The Town’s debris pile may have a better ending. Initially stored in early collection sites in vacant plazas on loan from the developers who own the land, Anderson said they have a “cradle to grave” contract with a company to haul and chip much of the material. He said it then may be sold to a paper company.

The estimated volume of chipped wood created by the storm in his town he said is between 700,000 to 1 million cu. yds. of fresh chips that once provided a leafy canopy over his department’s roads. P

You can also view previous issues of Superintendent's Profile.

Jump to Profile: