Friday, December 23, 2011

Remembering the Blizzard of '77 (Jan. 29, 2009)

January 28, 1977, is a date that is burned into the minds of anyone who lived in or near Buffalo NY at the time. Like space shuttle disasters, presidential assassinations, and skyscraper collapses, the Blizzard of '77 was one of those indelible, life changing events where you always remember where you were and how you got through it all. Maybe even moreso than those big news items. The Blizzard was more than life changing, it was life threatening, more akin to those who escaped the twin towers' collapse on 9/11 than those who merely have a story to tell of getting home that day.

To understand the Blizzard, you have to know how a normal Buffalo snowstorm works, and what a normal Buffalo winter is like. In a typical storm, narrow bands of heavy snow come in off Lake Erie, resulting in two-inch-an-hour snow in one town, while five miles away there's blue sky. Later, the wind shifts, Town 1 gets blue sky while Town 2 gets dumped on. Some spots might end up with two feet of snow and others next to nothing. That's the routine, day-to-day stuff. If you're the lucky recipient of a lake-effect snowstorm, you shovel it out of the way and get on with life. Fourteen inches of snow, big deal, yeah, so what.

Then we have the normal winter. Lake Erie is large but shallow, so freezes over by mid-winter. Early in the season, wide expanses of open water allow for west-to-east storms to pick up moisture and drop it inland as snow. By late winter, such as January 28, it's mainly frozen over, so the big snows don't happen so easily. Buffalo is also far enough inland from the Atlantic Ocean to miss the big coastal storms that bury Baltimore to Boston in a couple of feet of snow. Rochester and Syracuse, a mere 80 and 150 miles east, do not, and are downwind of Lake Ontario, while most of the Buffalo area is not. (Coastal storms rotate counterclockwise.) But anyway. By late January, Buffalo gets west-to-east storms like every other northeastern city, and it's cold, but the lake effect stuff is less an issue.

In late 1976 and early January 1977, Buffalo got an immense amount of snow, over 100 inches. Every day it snowed four or six inches, lots more in some areas. One nasty storm around the 10th dropped about three feet. It also stayed very cold, well below freezing, so all that snow that was falling was also building up on the frozen-over lake. Every yard had about four level feet of snow, apart from drifts. It was already getting difficult to shovel driveways, as the snow piles were getting up in the 10-foot range. I do have photos from the January 10 1977 storm and will post a few, but let me first get on with the story.

Friday, January 28, 1977, dawned bright and sunny, allowing people to travel to work without trouble. The storm hit mid-morning all at once, a huge wave that changed everything instantly. It was the wind, not any falling snow, that did the work. Suddenly, the wind was well past gale force. Maybe some trees went over, but that wasn't the big story. It was all that snow from past storms that was piled in yards, and especially piled on hundreds of square miles of frozen over Lake Erie, that all came inland, blowing sideways. Never mind driving, you couldn't see to walk. In a matter of a half hour, absolutely everything came to a halt across the entire region. Never mind clearing the roads, as the snowplows were just as stuck as everything else. Many of the cars in traffic at that moment would not again move for weeks.

Nor did the wind let up. It howled throughout the day on the 28th, continued on the 29th, and the 30th, and the 31st. Finally, on Tuesday, February 1st, the wind had died down enough to allow people to start to dig out. The drifts were unbelievable. Fifteen foot drifts were everywhere, burying entire houses. Drifts of 20 to 25 feet were not unknown.

Myself, I was at college, SUNY Geneseo, about 70 miles east of Buffalo, and about 45 miles east of hometown East Aurora (actually West Falls, about five miles farther into the ski hills from EA). Geneseo got the wind, too, but not the huge amount of snow the Buffalo environs got. I had classes at 9, 10 and 11 that morning, and usually came back to the dorms and dining hall on the south end of the campus for lunch at noon. I was on the unicycle, as usual. The storm hit Geneseo just after 11, so it was the trip across "The Tundra" that was most memorable. The Tundra was the long north-south sidewalk between two athletic fields, where one could get a wonderful view of the Genesee River valley to the west, high up on the valley wall. On this day, though, that made Tundra travelers sitting ducks for the strong west gale. The walks themselves were clear of snow, so it was a mere matter of leaning into the wind. I was on a unicycle. I don't know how many people were riding a unicycle when the Blizzard hit, but my guess is pretty darned few. I made it, though, all the way from the Bailey Science Hall, past Welles, down the hill to the Tundra, across the Tundra, across the road, and up the hill to the north end of Onondaga where I finally got off and took refuge. I'm sure that on the Tundra people thought I was nuts, and I probably was, but traction was fine. I could see the sidewalk below me just fine, too, and enough to the front and side of me to know where others' feet and legs were, so as not to run into anyone.

Note: In tens of thousands of trips across the Geneseo campus over my five years there on a unicycle, I never -- not once -- hit anyone. Scared the hell out of people on a routine basis, sure, but not once did I touch anyone accidentally.

The rest of the weekend, I sat in the dorm, as there was scant else I could do. Studied, ate, played records, hung out. Couldn't go anywhere; we didn't dare go outside, and why bother, as there wasn't anyplace to go. Nothing was open. Geneseo wasn't as badly affected as Buffalo, so school resumed on Monday as usual.

It was the weekend of February 12 before I even tried to go home. A vanful of people left Geneseo headed for Hamburg. My plan was to get out of the van with my cross country skis at US20A and Davis Road, and ski the four miles home into West Falls. The plan worked. US20A, being a main road, was among the first cleared. Davis was a county road, but had one lane clear after two weeks, courtesy of a rotary plow borrowed from Toronto International Airport. I stayed off the road, up on the snowbank on the east side of the road. My biggest hazard here was power lines. Tripping over them, that is.

Please re-read that last little bit. I am not exaggerating. I am not making this up. Yes, I had to make sure I stayed away from tripping over the power lines as I skied alongside Davis Road between 20A and Jewett-Holmwood Road. To this day, when I drive along there, seeing those same poles and wires in place, I continue to be amazed. They were sometimes at ankle level, sometimes at chest level. At least once they were buried in the snowbank thrown up by the rotary plow.

Eventually I made it home, and the next day made it back into East Aurora for the trip back to Geneseo.

The snowbank in the yard at home did not fully melt until about May 10, as I recall.

1 comment:

bus15237 said...

Comments on the original 2009 post:

Stuart Strickland
A couple of clarifications: While the first trip home on February 12 required skis, a second trip on 2/19 was done by car.

Power lines: There were no houses along the east side of Davis between 20A and Jewett-Holmwood Road; well, maybe one or two. Still aren't many. The wires I refer to run parallel to the road, not going from road to houses, which are typically a lot lower to the ground. The snow was powdery-er farther from the road and more difficult to ski in, so staying closer to the road, and the wires, made skiing easier.

Google StreetView of one power line along this stretch.