Twenty years ago, area was digging out from October Surprise snowstorm

Heavy equipment was used to move tree debris stacked at Porter Park.
Heavy equipment was used to move tree debris stacked at Porter Park. (Photos courtesy of Prairie Village Public Works Department)

Twenty years ago this week, Northeast Johnson County, along with the rest of the metro, was reeling from what became known as the October Surprise, a snowstorm that devastated tens of thousands of trees still in full fall foliage.

Many area residents lost power for up to a week as crews worked to repair power lines downed by the heavy wet snow that began falling around rush hour on Oct. 22, 1996. By the time it tapered out, 4 to 8 inches had fallen.

“The next morning, the sunlight was coming through the trees and there was ice all over,” recalled Johnson County Commissioner Ron Shaffer, who was a Prairie Village council member at the time. “Limbs were in yards and streets, it was like someone dropped a bomb.”

Prairie Village alone reported 35,000 street trees that had been damaged by the heavy wet snow that clung to leaves and overloaded branches.

An estimated 140,000 cubic yards of tree debris was removed from streets, most of it taken to Porter Park where it was piled in stacks reportedly three stories tall.

Tree debris was stacked at Porter Park before being mulched.
Tree debris was stacked at Porter Park before being mulched.

Fairway Police Chief Mike Fleming said his community, like the remainder of the area, was paralyzed by sheer volume of trees and branches brought down by the heavy snow.

“Just to give you an idea of how bad it was, for most of that day and into the next just about every street in Fairway except Shawnee Mission Parkway was blocked with down trees and power lines,” Fleming said.

“The weird part was that by the next afternoon most of the snow had melted as temps went back up to the mid to upper 40’s with bright sun.”

Public works crews in Prairie Village spent the first three days after the storm just opening streets by pushing debris out of the way, according to a city memorandum dated Jan. 30, 1997.

It took a month just to remove the debris and cart it to Porter Park. On one Saturday, there were 53 packer trucks operating in Prairie Village. The mulching effort began Nov. 11 and lasted until Dec. 20, yielding 18,000 cubic yards of mulch.

Barbara Vernon, Prairie Village city administrator at the time, remembered the desperation of people without power in the days immediately following the storm.

“People needed a place to go,” she said. “There were people who were ill and couldn’t be in the cold. It was a bad time.”

Shaffer said his family huddled in a downstairs room of his home where there was a fireplace to keep them warm until the power was restored.

“It was eerie driving around town,” he said. “There were no lights anywhere.”

Fleming agreed.

“It was a mess with hundreds of thousands without power and no way to get off their street or home,” he said.

Prairie Village had spent $710,000 by the end of January cleaning up the storm, and that expense didn’t include removing and replacing damaged trees. Shaffer said the city was eventually reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for much of the cost.

Porter Park was the collection point for tons of tree debris from the storm.
Porter Park was the collection point for tons of tree debris from the storm.