Record snowfalls in western New York lead to hundreds of rescues



BUFFALO — While western New Yorkers know how to handle snowstorms as well as anyone, even some longtime residents were left in awe by the rapid accumulation of snow in and around the city — one that meteorologists say will be for the record books.

The neighborhoods at the southern tip of Buffalo and towns and villages to the south and east saw more than five feet of snow accumulate in some areas from Thursday to Friday. The massive snowdrifts made driving near impossible, with response teams struggling to get around engulfed vehicles.

The snowfall was blamed for at least two deaths due to “cardiac events” related to shoveling and moving snow, county officials said. About 280 people needed to be rescued during the storm, according to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), a native of Buffalo’s southtowns.

The Buffalo area was on the verge of breaking a state record for the most snow in a 24-hour period, Hochul said. “Never happened like this before,” she added during a press briefing Saturday.

Bob Crowell, a 76-year-old lifelong resident of East Aurora, a picturesque town often used as a set in the filming of Hallmark holiday movies about 20 miles southeast of Buffalo, estimated that he had drifts in his yard that topped five feet.

Many stuck in the persistent bands downwind of Lake Erie made the most of their situation, posting pictures and videos of waist-high snow outside front doors and confused dogs trying to figure out how to get outside to use the bathroom.

Photos: Lake-effect snowstorm pummels western New York

“It’s fun,” he said. “The kid in you still comes out and it’s like. ‘Oh, a snow day!’ But then you realize you’ve got to deal with it.”

Orchard Park, the suburban home of the Buffalo Bills football team was the hardest hit of all, with 66 inches touching down from Thursday into Friday, potentially setting the record for the most snowfall in a 24-hour period in New York state.

By Saturday morning, Orchard Park reported a staggering 77 inches. Totals over 60 inches were also reported about 10 miles to Buffalo’s south in Hamburg, where the roof of a bowling alley collapsed under the weight of the snow.

It snowed so much that the Bills were forced to move a home game scheduled Sunday against the Cleveland Browns 200 miles away to Detroit.

Dedicated fans swapped tips on social media about the best driving routes to Michigan to attend the game. Some neighbors went so far as to help players dig out of their homes so they could get to the airport.

Excessive amounts of snow also buried areas on the northeast shores of Lake Ontario. Watertown, N.Y., reported 57 inches, and a location about 20 miles to its east posted 72 inches.

Crowell recounted the storm of November 2014, another that made international headlines, particularly for the shocking photos of a massive wall of clouds forming over Lake Erie before dumping more than seven feet of snow in a similar area of Buffalo.

Even that storm, he said, seemed less shocking because the snow fell over a longer period of time and in two waves.

“I’ve got to be honest with you, the weather forecasters, they were pretty … accurate,” he said. “I was hoping that maybe they’d get egg on their face on this. But they hit it right on the nose. They knew this was going to be big.”

But the most extreme, crippling snow amounts around the city were very localized — which is typical with lake-effect snow. While snow totals over 40 inches were common just a few miles south of Buffalo, some locations on the city’s north side only posted 5 to 10 inches.

City residents for the most part were nonchalant by what they characterized as a typical late fall snowstorm. Heavy snows began throughout the city Thursday night, but quickly shifted south after only a few hours, leaving about seven inches of snow for the bulk of city dwellers to clean up Friday morning.

Students were released early from classes on Thursday and schools were closed on Friday. Many of the city’s other institutions and businesses were also closed or started the day late.

Taria Daniels was out in front of her Moselle Street home in the Delevan-Grider neighborhood on the city’s East Side with her son and two nephews clearing a path to get her car on the street midday Friday. She was set to leave for her shift as a patient care assistant in the northern suburb of Tonawanda in a few hours.

“It’s every year, though, with Buffalo,” Daniels said. “It’s nothing new with us.”

Daniels said she went to the grocery store to prepare, as she would normally do for any predicted snowstorm. But she described the half-a-foot or so the city had seen to that point as “light.”

If the band moved north and buried the city in multiple feet of snow, as was still a possibility in the forecast at the time, she was prepared to hunker down with her family, she said. Though she was concerned about getting home from her shift before the next bout of snow set in.

“If it gets to six feet, it’s over,” she said. “I’m not coming outside, none of that.”

During the early afternoon Friday it looked like the northward shift of the lake effect band was beginning, with heavy snows and strong winds blasting downtown.

Inside the bar at the Marriott hotel attached to the LECOM Harbor Center, a facility that hosts amateur and college hockey games, bartender Mustafa Kalayci stood behind a glitzy granite slab, staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows of the seventh story restaurant as several tables, including members of the national media in town to cover the storm, worked on their meals.

Kalayci, originally from Turkey, was thrilled by the snow. He said that while some guests were not able to travel they were lucky to be in the hotel and not stuck in an airport trying to get home.

“There’s a lovely, beautiful place they can stay warm and look at outside,” he said.

Still, Huseyin Taran, the hotel’s general manager, said the storm had severely disrupted business. A youth hockey tournament at the attached hockey complex was canceled. Instead of being at capacity, the hotel was at 30 percent occupancy for the weekend.

“Obviously the Bills game [being moved to Detroit] has a big impact as well,” he said.

But the projected shift northward of the lake effect band would not materialize until late Friday and as the day moved forward more businesses decided to open.

As the day pressed on with the snow band remaining over the southtowns, bars and restaurants throughout the city opened up and resumed business as normal.

Outside, a driving ban didn’t stop many from braving the roads, with the state reporting 88 car crashes that made it more difficult to plow streets. Some crews came all the way from Long Island to help plow out the area.

The snow bands did eventually shift north again, running back through Buffalo and then to points north, dropping an additional foot on the city between midnight and 5 a.m. Saturday. The National Weather Service forecast office in Buffalo, located about 6 miles east of downtown, added 17.2 inches Friday night into Saturday morning bringing its storm total to 30.2 inches.

One more heavy band of snow is expected to again move through much of the Buffalo area Saturday night, dumping another 6 to 10 inches of snow before the region can fully begin to dig out on Sunday, when just brief, scattered snow showers are forecast.

As Evelio Vasquez Jr., a concrete worker and lifelong western New York resident, was helping his neighbor clear the sidewalk in Delevan-Grider neighborhood, he took the snowfall in stride.

“We’ve got bad winters, but I’ll take that over the earthquakes and the hurricanes and all that other stuff,” he said.

Grandoni reported from Washington.


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