Nor'easter tore through the Pa. suburbs, downing trees, causing havoc as many residents remain without power

A man walks past a tree that fell onto a car across from the Overbrook train station on Saturday, March 3, 2018.

The nor’easter “bomb” storm that tore through the Philadelphia region Friday executed a simple but efficient pattern of destruction as carving winds toppled trees that downed power lines, a repeated trinity of events that took out lights and cellphones and all manner of power, plunging a populace under siege into the 19th century.

When Saturday dawned, more than 300,000 Peco customers were without power. By the end of the day the number was around 165,000. Thousands were expected to remain in the dark for days.

Much of the damage was sustained in Delaware and Montgomery Counties, where older communities with mature trees and aboveground power lines saw the suburban landscape remade by a collapsing canopy of oaks, poplars, and other stately varieties that blocked roadways and smashed cars and houses.

At least one fatality was attributed to the storm, a 57-year-old Upper Merion man who suffered injuries after a large tree fell on his car Friday evening, according to Upper Merion Township police.

>> READ MORE: Why the storm stopped SEPTA in its tracks

Throughout Saturday, saw-wielding utility crews scrambled like lumberjacks cutting apart a horizontal forest, while their customers were compelled to do what most people can’t do well: wait.

The storm, with maximum gusts reported at 59 mph and sustained winds of 35 mph, was a “meteorological bomb,” said Al Cope, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly. That’s jargon for a rapidly developing storm, he said.

The event was not without surprises. There was more snow than meteorologists expected — as much as nine inches in Plymouth Meeting. And the mayhem that had been expected at the Jersey Shore hadn’t materialized as of Saturday night.

Still, forecasters warned that the biggest flood threat lay with the high tides into Sunday. The ocean and bay both churned with ferocity, resulting in significant beach erosion, which is expected to worsen through Sunday.

On Saturday, Delaware County officials declared a disaster emergency. As of Saturday night, power was still out in nearly 58,000 households, down from a peak of 115,000, said John McBlain, chairman of the Delaware County Council.

“There were no fatalities here, thankfully,” McBlain said in an interview. “It was a straight-wind event phenomenon, not only ripping branches off but pulling root balls wholly out of the ground.”

The county set up warming centers where residents without power could gather and charge their phones.

Officials focused concern on twin, seven-story apartment buildings on State Road in Drexel Hill, where some 200 residents — most of them elderly and  living alone — sat without power Saturday night after going dark around 5 p.m. Friday, according to superintendent Kirk Slade.

“People slide between calm and panic,” he said, as confused apartment dwellers without elevator service gingerly stepped down seven floors to find out what was happening, only to realize that they were physically unable to climb back upstairs. As Slade awaited power to be restored, he watched as relatives picked up some of their elders from the lobby to take them elsewhere. Those who had no one to whisk them to light and warmth remained in the lobby, Slade said, puzzled about being stranded and cold.

As that drama played out in one building, the Narberth Ambulance corps logged hard miles shuttling between multiple residences across Delaware and Montgomery Counties. John Mick, the deputy chief, said the volume of emergency calls his crew responded to doubled, to 76 dispatches in 24 hours.

“Anything from slips and falls to respiratory issues to people on oxygen machines or anything requiring power, we handled,” Mick said. “And down trees five feet in diameter made it tricky to get around.”

At the four hospitals of Crozer-Keystone Health System, the largest health-care provider in Delaware County, the worst cases were minor injuries from car accidents, said spokesman Andrew Bastin. Medical personnel also cared for people whose home equipment was rendered useless by the storm.

SEPTA service was operating late Saturday with delays on the Trenton, Lansdale/Doylestown, Manayunk/Norristown, and Fox Chase lines. Service was suspended Saturday night for Chestnut Hill East and West, as well as West Trenton. Media/Elwyn service was suspended until further notice. And the Norristown High Speed Line was suspended as well.

Not surprisingly, the rugged weather wrecked plans and occasions.

Lori Klein Brennan, 43, a fund-raising consultant in Broomall, was to be a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding outside Atlanta.

After her 10:15 a.m. flight was canceled Friday, she waited two hours at the airport for her luggage, only to learn that it had been sent to Atlanta on another flight without her.

“I was so distraught not to be at this wedding,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”

By 4 p.m., she returned home with her husband and daughter only to discover that the power was out. So was her 74-year-old mother’s, also a Broomall resident. The four went to Brennan’s sister’s house in Media, with “blow-up beds everywhere.”

Indeed, as people sought shelter, the low roar of inflatable mattresses echoed up and down suburban streets Friday and Saturday nights, as relatives made ready to accept refugee aunts, grandfathers, and cousins, opening bottles of wine as hosts poured libations to help all cope.

Others without beckoning relatives found solace where they could. The Wegmans in King of Prussia, open 24 hours, was a welcome oasis for some who lingered over pastries while their cellphones charged.

At the Haverford YMCA, meanwhile, members were welcome to take showers and timeouts from the hardships of the storm.

In a sincere attempt to help, Steffie Buerk, 68, a Merion psychotherapist, posted on Facebook that she would offer free post-traumatic stress therapy, as well as a free room on the third floor of her home, to anyone who wanted it.

“No one has come yet,” she said. “But the room is just sitting there. I’d be glad to have somebody come to stay.”

 

Staff writer Mari A. Schaefer contributed to this report