By Daniel Nott
With the snow from late October’s devastating storm nearly all melted, and power mostly returned to the last of the Pioneer Valley’s residents, the signs of a community moving on are visible. In Sunderland, which Western Massachusetts Electric Company said was the hardest hit of its towns in the storm, there is no better sign of a return to normalcy than tables filled with talkative locals at the Dove’s Nest Restaurant.
In the days following the storm, the dedicated regulars of the Dove’s Nest, which is the exclusive provider of diner food and atmosphere in Sunderland, weren’t able to congregate at the restaurant. Even if town residents could have navigated slippery maze of streets blocked by fallen trees, the restaurant, like much of the town, didn’t have power for days.
“We’ve never lost power for that long,” said Nancy Capen, who owns the Doves Nest. “Usually it’s just for a few hours.” She added that they have been busier than usual since they reopened on Wednesday.
The atmosphere in the restaurant on Friday was jubilant and excited, with locals meeting over home-cooked lunch and congratulating each other on their survival from across the room. The room was alive with similar takes on the same story—falling trees and their experiences without power.
Sunderland, a small town of under 4,000 people, is ten minutes down 116 from Amherst, but is part of Franklin County. According to the Amherst Bulletin, certain Sunderland residents required medical assistance for carbon monoxide poisoning after trying to heat their homes with an outdoor grill. Firefighters in Sunderland were making house-to-house wellness checks to make sure people had the resources they needed.
However, by Sunday, you could tell that the excitement of the episode was waning, and the conversation returned to the day’s specials and casual town talk, with an occasional storm story thrown in.
Bill, a regular who did not provide his last name (Upon asking, Nancy said that you never really any need to know someone’s last name), described his experience as “cold.” He said he didn’t have power for more than three days, which he said was the longest he’s ever been without electricity. “They still don’t have power in Springfield,” he said, adding that he was thankful he had his power returned.
Luke, a wait staff at the Dove’s Nest, told how he had a close call driving that Saturday of the storm. Without realizing how slippery it was, he lost control of his car, which spun around 270 degrees before coming to a stop.
“[The storm] happened so quick that they didn’t have time to put salt or sand down,” Luke said. He said that he measured 18 inches of snow at his house. According to Amherst Town Manager John Musante, most of the area received around 10 inches of heavy, wet snow.
Another regular at the Doves Nest, Richard Strycharz, walked in to a chorus of greetings by the staff and customers. He said he’s been coming to the Dove’s Nest since a man he referred to as “Wildcat” ran it in the 80’s. His son runs Walter’s Propane out of Sunderland, though he says most people associate him with it.
“My father ran that company for over 50 years,” Strycharz said. “I had it for a half an hour and gave it to my son.” He explained that he favored doing the entry-level jobs at the business where he can meet people around town, over doing work just for the money. He said that many generators run on propane, so following the storm there was a massive panic for people to fill their tanks, even if they were in no danger of running out.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people have permanent generators installed,” he said. The only time in recent memory that there had been such a high demand was in the months leading up to 2000, or “Y2K,” when everyone thought the electronic infrastructure of the country was going to shut down. Strycharz said they saw more generators in those 6 months prior than ever before. He also recalled 1962 as a time where people bought generators in anticipation of the end of the world.
Strycharz said that the reason this storm was so bad was because of the amount of downed trees resulting from the early snow. When these trees fell, they took out the high-voltage “primary” lines, destroying transformers and knocking out power for large areas at a time.
Strycharz said he lost power for 4 days which, like the others, was the longest he could ever remember losing power for.
As he continued talking, the conversation moved from the weather to the work he had done as an electrician at UMass, the National Rifle Association, and of course, the chicken meal that Nancy put in front of him. And with that, it seemed that the now-distant 2011 October storm would become just another memory to share over brunch at the local diner.