(This column was first published in the December 27,1999
What was the major regional
natural history event of the 20th century? No contest.
Lake Erie froze over by December
14, 1976, an early record. This normally puts an end to the lake
effect snowstorms created by winds picking up moisture from the lake
surface, converting it to snow and dumping it when those winds reach
shore. But that winter something different happened.
It began to snow just after Christmas
and a few inches accumulated almost every day through the next month. By
late January snow depth in Buffalo was 30 to 35 inches and street
plowing was already falling behind -- 33 of the city's 79 plows were in
for repairs. More ominous, snow depth on the 10,000 square miles of Lake
Erie surface was also almost three feet.
Although the National Weather Service
had posted blizzard warnings, that fateful Friday, January 28, 1977
started out quite pleasant. There was little wind and it wasn't too cold
for late January. But suddenly, just before noon, the infamous Blizzard of
The temperature quickly plummeted
to near zero and the winds arrived with gusts peaking at over 70 miles
per hour. This produced a wind chill that dropped almost off the chart to
60 below. Only about seven inches of new snow fell over the next several
days, but western New York and nearby Canada were also inundated with
those tons of snow blown in off Lake Erie.
As one consequence, visibility
remained at zero for the first 25 hours of the storm. Drivers found
themselves being buried and many, surrounded by the whiteout, were forced
to stay in their cars. Some of those contributed to the 29 death toll,
dying of carbon monoxide poisoning or exposure. (In another episode carbon
monoxide from a snow blower started in an enclosed garage killed not only
the operator but his daughter in a nearby bedroom.) Hearing of people
marooned in their cars, police struggled over drifts to bang on car roofs.
They were relieved to receive no answer because they had no way of digging
Ordinary snow would not have been so
bad. During this same period the east end of Lake Ontario received almost
six feet, but theirs didn't pack the way it did in Buffalo. Here the
wind was so strong that it broke up snow crystals and compressed them into
drifts that were cement-like in quality. At the same time buildings acted
like snow fences causing the drifts to accumulate in some places to 30
feet, enough to bury a house.
The problem became more than the
usual too few plows; now it was plows that could not penetrate the drifts.
Some broke down, were quickly buried and themselves contributed to the
difficulty of opening roads. The state's National Guard and Department of
Transportation, the Army Corps of Engineers, nearby towns and commercial
firms had to bring in earth moving equipment to handle the huge
Seven western New York counties were
designated part of a major national disaster area and soldiers were
dispatched from Fort Bragg in North Carolina to assist in the clean-up. It
lasted well into February.
Although there was some looting and
theft during the storm, it was mostly an episode that brought the
community together. Stores and restaurants and hotels provided food and
places to stay, often free. Agencies like the Salvation Army and the Red
Cross as well as city and county departments worked continuously through
the emergency to provide services. Individual people helped not only
neighbors but strangers as well.
It was without a doubt our storm
of the century.-- Gerry Rising