As our year without a winter grinds along beneath the grey permacast skies, I am sitting at my desk sipping strong coffee and dreaming of the epic snowstorms of my youth. Growing up in a place where the weather is always trying to kill you, you develop a real connoisseurs appreciation for storms. To an uninitiated southerner all snow storms may look the same, but to a northerner they come in several different sizes and shapes. It’s kinda like the way that Eskimos have 57 Varieties of snow. Or was that Heinz?
Growing up in Western New York epic snow falls were fairly regular occurrences. 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 19 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.
Uh oh, I feel a story coming on…
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.
On January 28th the 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. We played outside for hours, only coming inside to eat, thaw out, and change into a dry pair of mittens.
With the Natural Gas shortage, and the bitter cold temps, the inside of 20 Prospect wasn’t much warmer than a meat locker. Coming in from the cold, with face, and wrists raw and red from playing in the snow I would go into the bathroom, and run my hands under cold water until the feeling returned.
Why cold water? Well, Mom taught me that it was safer to warm them under cold water, than under hot, since your skin was so numb you wouldn’t know if you were burning them with scalding water. You only turned the hot water on when the feeling began to return to your hands.
Seriously. I’m sure my Canadian readers can back me up on this.
To warm the rest of my body, I would sit on the heat register in the living room, and wrap an afghan around me, letting the hot air blow it up like a balloon until the grate began to burn grid marks into my butt cheeks. Warmth never felt so good.
We were out of school for two whole weeks, mostly due to the energy crisis, and bitter cold temps more so than the snow. Batavia hadn’t been hit as hard as Buffalo, and parts of the snow belt. Our streets were cleared within a few days, and the resulting snow piles reached as high as the 2nd story windows in some places.
In Buffalo, there are stories of cars that disappeared in parking lots, and stayed buried until Springtime. For us though the mountains of snow became a maze of tunnels and forts that we used for running snow ball fights, and games of war until our Mom’s made us dig them up for fear of one of us being buried and suffocating inside them.
Nights were spent watching TV, and fighting boredom with endless games of cards around the kitchen table. Now that I think about it, I can probably trace my hatred of card games back to those interminable snowbound weeks.
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. For Dad’s part the overtime pay was a boon that most likely led to our summer vacation in Florida the following summer.
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.
I will say this about the winters in 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 person could spend days buried in a drift waiting to be found. Just like that girl in New Mexico last week.
For more photos, and eyewitness accounts, go to this audio slideshow put together by the Niagara Gazette