Hundreds of thousands in the dark from Mass storm

Power may be out for up to a week after a record-shattering October storm dumped heavy, wet snow across the state, particularly in western and central Massachusetts, officials and utilities warned Sunday.

Heavy, wet snow on trees with full canopies makes for a disaster, according to Western Massachusetts Electric Company (WMECo) spokeswoman Sandra Ahearn. WMECo is calling this the worst storm it's ever seen.

WMECo is continuing its damage assessment, clearing roads, stabilizing the electric system and high priority restorations such as hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities.

More than 140,000 WMECo customers were without power as of 2:00 p.m. Sunday, which WMECo says is the largest number of customers ever affected by a storm in its service territory. Approximately 14,000 customers have been restored. WMECo said it expects some customers may be without power for up to a week. The most extensive damage is in the Greater Springfield, Amherst and Greenfield areas. Damage in the Berkshire County towns was relatively light.

Gov. Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency, allowing him to mobilize the National Guard to help hard-hit cities and towns. Hundreds of soldiers were out Sunday helping chainsaw crews remove fallen trees so utility workers could get to downed wires.

"It's not only a lot of snow, but a lot of the heaviest wettest snow that you ever want to see out there," said Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

"This is not going to be a quick fix," Judge said. "It's totally smashing any historical records."

Northampton public schools will be closed Monday, according to city officials.

In a Northampton neighborhood, Dale Carhardt shoveled the sidewalk for neighbor Janet Richards. Neither had power Sunday afternoon, but both were taking it in stride.

"I'm not sure about tonight, if I should stay in a motel or not," Richards said. "At some point in time I'll decide, but until then, there's not much to do, read, take a walk around, stuff like that."

Before this weekend, most parts of Massachusetts had seen no more than an inch of snow from an October storm, with the record closer to 6 inches in higher elevations. Some places in western Massachusetts got as much as 30 inches from Saturday into Sunday.

A train from Chicago to Boston got stuck Saturday night in Palmer, Mass., when a rockslide caused by the storm blocked the tracks about 10 p.m.

The 48 passengers who spent the night on-board had heat and electricity and were given free food and drinks, Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham said. Buses arrived about 11 a.m. Sunday to take them to their destinations.

Train service was suspended in much of the northeast corridor, including between Boston and Providence and between New Haven, Conn., and Springfield, Mass.

In Ashburnham, in the northern part of the state, Sarah Arel was shoveling and raking snow off the roof of her 1780s farmhouse Sunday morning. She described the snow as "beautifully white."

"However, it's very deep, very heavy, and we must have gotten over 20 inches," she added.

She said she and her husband were surprised to see so much snow in October.

"I did not expect this at all," she said. "Winter is not our favorite season. This is a little bit too early knowing how long winter lasts."

In Worcester, city manager Michael V. O'Brien asked families to postpone trick-or-treating until Thursday, when temperatures are forecast to be in the 60s, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported. He said he's not sure the city charter gives him the authority to move the holiday, but he is concerned that kids won't be safe trick-or-treating on darkened streets covered with piles of snow and downed trees.

At least one death was blamed on the storm, a 20-year-old Springfield man electrocuted when he stopped near police and firefighters examining downed wires, police Capt. William Collins said. Power was out in much of the city and lines were down all over.

Just two months ago, Irene knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people and some remained in the dark for a week, prompting complaints about how utilities responded.

"It's a little startling. I mean, it's only October," said Craig Brodur, who was playing keno with a friend at Northampton Convenience in western Massachusetts when the power went out Saturday night, forcing the half-dozen people inside to scatter.

The forbidding forecast had Boston Mayor Thomas Menino urging Occupy Boston activists who've been camped out on a downtown square for weeks in an anti-Wall Street protest to leave for the night.

But media volunteer Jason Potteiger said that about 200 people still staying in tents at the site were in good spirits and the people running the food tent had more donations of hot meals than they knew what to do with.

"The term solidarity is used a lot in this movement, and I think the sentiment that's all over camp is that if Oakland and Denver can make it through tear gas and rubber bullets, we can make it through a little snow and sleet," he said.

Because of the hazardous conditions that may still be present in neighborhoods, WMECo urges parents to exercise extreme caution in assessing the local safety environment relative to downed trees and wires before sending children out for Halloween Trick or Treating.

WMECo has secured the services of additional line and tree crews, and due to the regional nature of the storm, some are coming from as far away as Michigan. Customers are reminded to stay at least 10 feet away from downed wires and treat all wires as live. For those customers using a generator, WMECo stresses the generator should be installed by a licensed electrician and should only be operated outdoors. If you need to report an emergency or power outage, call 413-781-4300 within the Springfield area, or 877-OK-WMECO (877-659-6326) outside of the Springfield calling area. When you call, please be prepared to provide your name, WMECo account number, telephone number, address and a description of outage issues.