It’s the first snowfall of the season, and if you listened to the weather forecasters you’d think the world was ending. I know, they think they are providing a public service, but the 48 hour hype fest before the most normal of snowfalls is a bit much. Like the boy crying wolf, what will they do when we get a real blizzard?
Growing up in Western New York, epic snow falls were fairly regular occurences. We all remember the Blizzard of 77′, but there were other big snows too. The Ice Storm of 76′, the Six Pack blizzard of 1985, the unexpected 2 ft. snowfall on Nov. 20th, 2000 that stranded thousands, the 82″ that fell from Dec 24th – 28th, 2001, and the Friday the 13th Storm in October of 2006. I have never experienced anything close to these snowfalls in my 17 winters in Minnesota. We just don’t have enough moisture in the air to get that kind of snow. Not that the 77 Blizzard was about Lake Effect snow. It was a very different and unique storm altogether, and one that may never be repeated.
The Winter of 1976-77 began with some unseasonably cold weather. There was snow in October that year, and the average temperature for the month of November was 34ºF, the coldest on record. The cold continued into December and the snow began to pile up. By December 14th the water temperature in Lake Erie had reached 32ºF, the earliest date it had been that cold. As the snow kept falling through December and into January, the Lake froze over, and the cold temperatures (January average a bone chilling 13ºF) kept the snow from melting, and forming a crust. The result was that by the time the Blizzard began on January 28th, there had already been 150 inches of snow in Buffalo that season, and the snow depth was measured at 33 inches. Several feet of fine powdery snow covered the ice surface out on Lake Erie. What happened next was totally unexpected.
When the storm hit, wind gusts began, the temperature dropped and it began snowing. But within 2-3 hours of the storm hitting, the radar in Buffalo showed no sign of snowfall, yet visibility was zero. The 60 mile per hour gusts had begun blowing the snow off of the Lake ice and onto land. The high winds lasted for days, and the drifts that resulted buried houses, and cars in densely packed drifts that were impervious to plowing. Gridlock ensued, and the coming days and weeks were a struggle. There had already been a natural gas shortage prior to the Blizzard that winter, and the bitter cold temperatures only made things worse.
Dad spent a lot of long days at work. Working on a streetlight and line crew for Niagara Mohawk, bad weather always meant overtime. But for a 9 year old kid like me, once the winds died down, it was a wonderland. School was canceled for 2 weeks, and my friends and I spent all our time climbing the snow piles on Prospect, and digging tunnels through the front yard. In the end, they had to extend our school year into late June to make up for the lost time, but it was worth it.
The stories of where you were, and what you did during the Blizzard of 1977, are legion. The storm, coming during the Mid 70’s malaise that had struck the Rust Belt, was like a punch in the gut, and Buffalo’s image has never recovered. I doubt I will ever see anything like it again in my lifetime. So I better quit before I head into Grandpa Simpson territory, and start telling you about the Onion I tied on my belt, which was the fashion at the time…
I will say this about the Midwest and the Great Plains, though. I learned very quickly to never venture out of town during a snow storm. When I moved here in 1993 I drove up from Nashville through a heavy snow in Central Illinois. Out there on the prairie, there isn’t anything in 500 miles to stop the wind, and it doesn’t take much to become lost. That was one white knuckle drive, and I vowed never to take a foolish chance like that again. Unlike Western New York, a guy could spend days buried in a drift waiting to be found.
So in the immortal words of Jimmy Griffin, the mayor of Buffalo during the 85′ storm “stay inside, grab a six pack, and watch a football game”. Sage advice from the mayor.