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Snow drifts made travel difficult in parts of New York (February 7, 1977). Here shown is the city of Buffalo.
A house almost completely buried in snow in Tonawanda, New York (January 30, 1977)

The Blizzard of ’77 was a deadly blizzard that hit Buffalo, New York and the area around it in New York and Ontario (and to a lesser extent, surrounding regions) from January 28 to February 1, 1977. Daily peak gusts of 69, 51, 52, 58 and 46 miles per hour (111, 82, 84, 93, and 74 km/h) were recorded during this period at the Buffalo National Weather Service office (National Weather Service Buffalo Office 2006a). The severe winter was not limited to the Northeastern United States with snow also observed in Miami, Florida on January 20.

In the hardest struck areas, snowmobiles became the only viable method of transportation. In Western New York and Southern Ontario, snow built up on frozen Lake Erie and the snow cover on the ground over land at the start of the blizzard provided ample material for the high winds to blow around into huge drifts. The combination of bitter cold, high winds, and blowing snow paralyzed the areas most strongly affected by the storm. Lake Ontario does not freeze over, which meant that northern New York did not have to deal with previously accumulated snow blowing off the lake’s surface. This did allow for considerable lake effect snow to occur, which when coupled with the existing snow cover and wind also created paralysis.

Contents

Winter of 1976-1977

During the months leading up to the blizzard, weather conditions occurred that allowed the blizzard to have the impacts that it did. A high-amplitude planetary wave pattern set up (Wagner 1978), which was very persistent from October 1976 through January 1977 and involved a ridge over western North America and a trough over eastern North America (Wagner 1977a). In January 1977 this pattern persisted with the strong ridge over western North America being more than two standard deviations from the mean, while the strong trough centered over eastern North America was more than three standard deviations from the mean (Wagner 1977a).

A strong blocking high developed over the Arctic Ocean during January and this moved the polar vortex to southern Canada, south from its normal location (Wagner 1977b). Strong northwest flow between the ridge over western North America and the trough over eastern North America resulted in a strong northwest flow in between, which ushered Arctic air into the central and eastern United States (Wagner 1977b). The circulation helped cause record cold for the winter over many portions of the eastern United States, with the Ohio Valley averaging more than 8 °F below normal (Wagner 1978). The severe winter was not limited to the northeastern United States, snow was observed in Miami, Florida, on January 20 and snow mixed with rain occurred in the Bahamas. (Schwartz 1977)

In Western New York

Antecedent weather

During the June through September period, the Buffalo National Weather Service (NWS) office recorded 16.05 in (408 mm) of rain, (NWS Buffalo Office 2006c) which is wetter than the 1961-1990 normal of 14.29 in (363 mm) (Northeast Regional Climate Center 2006). In Western New York the previously described pattern resulted in snowy and cold weather in the months leading up to the blizzard. Buffalo, at this time, was a city of about 463,000 people with about 2 million in the metropolitan area, the second-largest city in New York State (Bahr 1980, p. 5).

The first trace of snow of the winter at the Buffalo NWS weather station, in Cheektowaga), New York, occurred on October 9, while the first accumulating snow was on October 21 (NWS Buffalo Office 2006c). Elsewhere in Western New York, lake effect snow was observed in two periods with up to 4 in (10 cm) on October 17-18 and up to 12 in (30 cm) on October 21-22 (O’Connell 1977). By the last day of October, Lake Erie was 48 °F (9 °C), the coldest it had been on that date (NWS Buffalo Office 2006b).

November’s air temperature in Buffalo was the coldest in nearly 100 years (since 1880), with an average temperature of 34.1 °F (1.2 °C). November's average temperature was about 6 °F (−14 °C). [1] The first three weeks of November were quite dry in Buffalo (only 0.30 in (7.6 mm) of precipitation), and November as a whole was dryer than normal. During late November some heavy snow occurred, including 19 in (48 cm) on November 30 (up to 4 ft (120 cm) in southern Erie County, Buffalo's county) (O’Connell 1977). The total November snowfall was recorded at 31.3 in (80 cm) in Buffalo.[1]

December was cold and snowy with an average temperature of 22.0 °F (−5.6 °C) (NWS Buffalo Office 2006b). Like November, December's average temperature was also about 6 °F (−14 °C) below normal.[1] December's snowfall was 60.7 in (154 cm).[1] Daily snow depth readings varied from 2 to 26 in (5.1 to 66 cm), (NWS Buffalo Office 2006c), with a maximum measured snow depth of 31 in (79 cm) (3:40 p.m. December 2; O'Connell 1977).

Lake Erie froze over by December 14; this was a record.[2] An ice-covered Lake Erie usually puts an end to lake-effect snowstorms because the wind can not pick up moisture from the lake's surface, convert the moisture to snow and then dump it when the winds reach shore.[2]

The wintry weather continued in January with the monthly average temperature being 13.8 °F (−10.1 °C), the coldest on record (records began in 1870 in Buffalo) (O’Connell 1977). January's average temperature was 10 °F (−12 °C) below normal.[1] It never rose to freezing in Buffalo that month, the first January that had occurred (O’Connell 1977). On January 10 over 1 ft (30 cm) of snow fell and combined with winds gusting to {{convert|59|mi/h|km/h|abbr=on) resulted in blizzard conditions. (U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. [USACE] 1977, p. 2)

Prior to January 28, the day the blizzard started, it had snowed almost every day since just after Christmas.[2] By January 27 Buffalo's snow depth was 59.1 in (150 cm).[1] There was continuous snow cover from November 29 until the day of the blizzard, and 151.3 in (384 cm) of snow had fallen that winter prior to the blizzard 59.1 in (150 cm) in January alone) (NWS Buffalo Office 2006b), well-above normal even for a city that averages about 100 in (250 cm)) of snowfall per year. This all led to a snow depth of 33 in (84 cm) on the day the blizzard started (NWS Buffalo Office 2006b).

Low pressure crossed Lake Erie on January 27 and moved to James Bay; it became stalled east of James Bay.[1] Then the storm moved back west over James Bay before finally moving east to the Canadian Maritimes.[1]

Prelude

Even before the blizzard hit, the Niagara Mohawk Power Company had warned that snow was reaching the power lines in some areas of Western New York (Bahr 1980, p. 25). Also, on Thursday, January 27, severe natural gas shortages forced industries and schools to either curtail activities or to close.[1] The governors of Minnesota, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey had also declared energy emergencies (Bahr 1980, p. 37).

Early in the week of the blizzard, James Lindner, Commissioner of Street Sanitation for the City of Buffalo, estimated that approximately 20% of cars in the City of Buffalo were illegally parked or abandoned, limiting the ability for snowplows to clear side streets and making many of them impassable (Bahr 1980, p. 26). A concentrated effort to plow (and tow as necessary), called the “Snow Blitz” by the press, managed to make significant progress on Tuesday, January 25, and Wednesday, January 26, with the help of 960 tickets and 140 tows (Bahr 1980, 26-27). Even so, one source notes that side streets in the City of Buffalo were “practically impassable” on Wednesday, January 26. (USACE 1977, p. 2)

On Wednesday evening snow squalls and high winds hit Wyoming, Cattaraugus, Allegany and Erie counties in Western New York. (USACE 1977, p. 2) This snowstorm closed the Buffalo Skyway, Fuhrmann Boulevard (a major route to the suburbs south of the city), (Bahr 1980, 18-19; USACE 1977, p. 2) and many other roads (USACE 1977, p. 2) and forced snow removal crews to focus on the major and secondary roads Wednesday night and Thursday (Bahr 1980, p. 28). Multiple motorists were stranded on Fuhrmann Blvd. and were rescued by police and firefighters overnight Wednesday (USACE 1977, p. 2). The clearing of snow from this storm was made difficult by winds, which in one case on Thursday, January 27, transformed a clear road to one with 6 ft (2 m) drifts in less than an hour (Bahr 1980, p. 30). The Greater Buffalo International Airport closed Thursday, January 27. (USACE 1977, p. 2)

By late January snow removal was hampered; 33 of the city's 79 snow plows were in for repairs.[2] On the afternoon of Thursday, January 27, the National Guard had been called to the region with equipment to help clear the streets of snow.[1]

Onset

Friday morning

On Thursday, January 27, an Arctic front had swept southward through the northern Great Plains to the Midwest (Bahr 1980, p. 36). Between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. on Friday, January 28, a wall of snow accompanied the cold front passage through Indianapolis, Indiana, along with a temperature drop of almost 25 ° F. Between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., Columbus, Ohio, reported similar situations (Rossi 1999, 237-238). Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio, as well as Erie, Pennsylvania, were also hit strongly by the cold front. The NWS office in Erie, Pennsylvania, warned that "travel might be disastrous"; and there were more than 500 accidents in Erie that morning (Bahr 1980, p. 41).

From midnight to 11:00 a.m. the temperature at the Buffalo airport rose from 5 °F (−15 °C) to 26 °F (−3 °C).[1] Snow began around 5 a.m. with about 2 in (5.1 cm) of new snow prior to the beginning of the blizzard conditions (NWS Buffalo Office 2006a). At 4 a.m. the Buffalo NWS office indicated that “very strong winds will once again produce near blizzard conditions beginning late this afternoon and continuing tonight” (Bahr 1980, p. 40). At 11 a.m. a blizzard warning was issued, which was the first time the Buffalo NWS office had done this (Bahr 1980, p. 42).

That morning observers on the 16th floor of the M&T Bank Building in Buffalo watched as a gray wall covered the city; it appeared white as it came closer. A blast of wind hit the building that caused the floor to move and the glass window to creak, and then the wall of white enveloped the building. It was 11:10 a.m. (Bahr 1980, p. 46).

On the previous day the governor of New York had decided to use the National Guard and the New York State Department of Transportation to help clean up snow in the City of Buffalo, not knowing that a blizzard would hit. Some New York State Department of Transportation equipment had arrived in Buffalo while the National Guard was not yet mobilized, but a meeting was being held at the Buffalo city garage that morning to coordinate the efforts. Before the meeting finished, Buffalo city plows started to return to the garage due to a lack of visibility; they reported that they were unable to even see their own plow blades (Bahr 1980, 46-47). By 11:30 a.m. most workers in the City of Buffalo had been released early, but few made it home (Bahr 1980, p. 50). At 11:35 a.m. lightening was seen in the darkening sky.[3]

The white wall of snow reached the airport around 11:30 a.m. (Bahr 1980, 52-53, NWS Buffalo Office 2006a) associated with the cold front (Dewey 1977). Winds increased to 29 mph (47 km/h), gusting to 49 mph (79 km/h), with visibility dropping from .75 mi (1.21 km) to 0 (NWS Buffalo Office 2006a) where it stayed until 12:50 a.m. the next day (USACE 1977, p. 3).

There were three airplanes on the tarmac at the Greater Buffalo International Airport in Cheektowaga waiting to take off when the blizzard hit (Bahr 1980, p. 94). One of them idled for 5 minutes due to the blizzard hitting; this resulted in the nose wheel freezing and preventing it from turning around (Bahr 1980, p. 53). It took several hours to bring the three airplanes back to the terminal since they had to do this via radio communication. The limited visibility prevented the pilots from seeing the men on the ground who would normally guide the airplane (Bahr 1980, p. 94).

Friday afternoon

During the four hours after the blizzard hit the temperature at the Buffalo airport fell from 26 to 0 °F (-3 to -18 °C)) of snow in January prior to the blizzard). Lake Erie was reported to be covered by 'deep, powdery snow' at the beginning of the blizzard (Wrightson 1977). During January the unusually cold conditions limited thawing and freezing and thus the snow on the ground (and frozen lake) did not consolidate into a form that would limit drifting (USACE 1977, p. 4).

The new snow associated with the cold front, along with the snow that had previously accumulated on land and on frozen Lake Erie, was all blown by the strong winds and created drifts of over 25 ft (8 m) in metro Buffalo (Dewey 1977). During the blizzard only around 12 in (30 cm)) of "new" snow fell, and much of this is thought to be from snow that previously was in the snowpack on Lake Erie (NWS Buffalo Office 2006a).

The drifted snow from the blizzard was difficult to clear for reasons illuminated by NWS meteorologist Ben Kolker: "The wind was so strong that it packed the snow. It broke the snow crystals up so they really packed in solidly, almost like a form of cement" (Rossi 1999, p. 286). As discussed later in this article, normal snow clearing methods could not be used in many cases due to the height of the drifts and the tight packing of the snow (USACE 1977, p. 4).

Friday evening

The worst conditions of the blizzard in Buffalo occurred during the late afternoon of Friday, January 28, as winds averaged 40 knots (46 mph, 74 km/h) and gusted to 60 knots (69 mph, 111 km/h) with wind chills of -60 to -70 degrees Fahrenheit (-50 °C to -55 °C)[1](NWS pre-2001 wind chill calculation method; NWS Buffalo Office 2006a).

That night people stayed in whatever shelter they could find, with 700 people staying in the Donovan State Office Building, 200 in the Rath Building, 300 in the Memorial Auditorium, etc. (Bahr 1980, 67-68). Authorities estimated 13,000 people were stranded Friday night in downtown Buffalo and that many in the surrounding areas as well (ex. 1,700 at Bell Aerosystems in Wheatfield, 2,500 at Harrison Radiator Company in Lockport; Bahr 1980, p. 93).

With many roads becoming impassable, the City of Buffalo police were almost immobile by Friday evening (Bahr 1980, p. 70). Through radio and television, citizens were asked to loan snowmobiles and four-wheel drive vehicles to the Buffalo police (Bahr 1980, p. 70); police used the snowmobiles (Rossi 1999, p. 272) and four-wheel drive vehicles to answer calls. Looting broke out and items stolen included radios and firefighters' clothing from fire trucks (Bahr 1980, p. 88), as well as more than US$1,500 in medical supplies from a stuck ambulance (Bahr 1980, p. 114). Cigarettes, liquor, beer, coffee, meat and refrigerators were stolen from abandoned semi-trucks (Bahr 1980, pp. 88, 114). There was also looting from factories, stores (including a couple jewelry stores and a furniture/appliance store) and homes (Bahr 1980, pp. 88, 114).

A fire broke out at Whitney Place and Virginia Street, in the City of Buffalo, on Friday evening. Fire trucks rammed through stalled cars in an attempt to get to the scene and fire hoses were stretched two to three blocks to reach the fire, as that is where the fire trucks were able to make it to (Bahr 1980, 80-81). The National Guard assisted in taking firemen to the scene in four-wheel drive vehicles (Bahr 1980, p. 82).

Not only did the weather frustrate efforts to reach the scene, but it also hampered the ability to fight the fire. Attempts to disconnect hoses to move them resulted in the water freezing and bursting the hoses (Bahr 1980, p. 83; Rossi 1999, p. 230). Since the street drains were blocked with snow, runoff water from the fire rose to the running boards on the fire department's pumpers. When this water froze it required jack hammers to extricate the pumpers (Rossi 1999, p. 230). Hoses also had to be removed with jack hammers (Bahr 1980, p. 83; Rossi 1999, p. 230). Some fire truck pumpers stalled in the snow when wind blew into the motors or they ran out of fuel. Since their design necessitated the use of water instead of antifreeze as a coolant, the water in the pumper froze and ruined them (Rossi 1999, p. 230, 308; Bahr 1980, 83-84).

The fire was eventually extinguished but not before six or seven houses were destroyed and 50 people left homeless (Bahr 1980, p. 93; NWS Buffalo Office 2006a; Rossi 1999, p. 231). Virginia Street and Whitney Place were closed for more than two weeks following the fire due to vehicles stuck in the ice (Bahr 1980, p. 179). Fireman used snowmobiles to rescue trapped people, and to transport nurses and doctors to the hospitals (Rossi 1999, p. 307); and they also used four-wheel drive vehicles to deliver medicine (Rossi 1999, p. 310).

On Friday volunteers on four-wheel drive vehicles and snowmobiles delivered food (a few thousand dollars worth every 45 minutes) for the Salvation Army from their Buffalo headquarters (Bahr 1980, p. 91). The Red Cross opened eight shelters in Erie County, New York, on Friday and snowmobile clubs provided volunteers to deliver food, blood and medicine (Bahr 1980, p. 92). Snowmobiles were also used to rescue people from the Skyway as well as from another expressway (Bahr 1980, p. 94).

Duration and cleanup

By midnight Friday, it was estimated that 2,000 cars were stranded on Main Street alone and about 8,000 on other streets in the City of Buffalo (Bahr 1980, p. 118). Saturday morning (January 29) visibility improved and the City of Buffalo sent their plows back out (Bahr 1980, p. 113). The many abandoned cars made their job more difficult (Bahr 1980, p. 118). By 6:00 a.m. Saturday, Buffalo's Commissioner of Street Sanitation, James Lindner, had 30 private tow trucks removing vehicles and later in the day the number would rise to 50 (Bahr 1980, p. 118). Saturday afternoon, dump trucks and payloaders dumped snow into the Niagara River (Bahr 1980, p. 119). Buffalo police focused on quelling the looting Saturday (Bahr 1980, p. 114) with 50-60 jailed by evening (Bahr 1980, p. 124).

On Saturday, the Buffalo Courier-Express did not publish for the first time in its history (143 years; Bahr 1980, p. 113), and The Buffalo Evening News only published 10,000 copies (USACE 1977, p. D-5 which reproduces an article from the Buffalo Courier-Express February 12, 1977). On Friday (January 28) New York State Governor Hugh L. Carey requested that portions of New York State be declared a major disaster area and on Saturday (January 29) President Jimmy Carter declared an “Emergency” for all of New York and Pennsylvania that resulted in a declaration of emergency specifically for the Western New York counties of Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, and Niagara (USACE 1977, p. 7) . At 11:10 a.m., during a short break in the storm, a National Guard C-130 was able to land at the Buffalo Airport (Bahr 1980, p. 118).

Saturday (January 29) had a record low for the date, -7 degrees Fahrenheit (-22 °C), breaking the old record set in 1885 (Bahr 1980, p. 126), and a peak wind gust of 51 miles per hour (82 km/h) (NWS Buffalo Office 2006a). During midafternoon the lull in the storm ended and the winds once again blew strongly, causing new drifting (Bahr 1980, p. 119). The storm continued since the low pressure center, with which the cold front was associated, stalled east of James Bay and then “moved back west over James Bay before finally moving east to the Canadian Maritimes” (NWS Buffalo Office 2006a).

Early Sunday morning (January 30) the wind and snow decreased somewhat (Bahr p. 127) and the sun was actually seen at times Sunday morning (Bahr 1980, p. 128). Sunday morning, Buffalo city plows and New York State Department of Transportation equipment were able to open several major roads (Main, Broadway, Michigan, Sycamore, Walden, Fillmore, Ohio, and a lot of South Park and Delaware) (Bahr 1980, p. 127).

President Carter appointed Thomas Casey, Federal Disaster Assistance Administration Region II (Northeast) Director, as the Federal Coordinating Officer in charge of the U.S. federal government response to the blizzard; Casey arrived with New York Governor Hugh Carey at the Buffalo airport in a C-130 at noon Sunday (USACE 1977, p. 7; Bahr 1980, 133-134). With the weather clearing and single lanes cleared on some roads, many sightseers drove into Buffalo (Bahr 1980, p. 135). At 3:00 p.m., the wind increased and blowing snow once again decreased visibility such that driving became treacherous, and thus hundreds were stranded anew and their abandoned cars blocked roads previously cleared (Bahr 1980, p. 135). On Sunday, a peak gust of 58 miles per hour (93 km/h) was recorded at the Buffalo airport (NWS Buffalo Office 2006a) and that night the wind chill fell to -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 °C) (NWS pre-2001 wind chill calculation method; Bahr p. 136).

At 8:00 p.m., Sunday, the National Guardsmen, in their cold-weather gear, began action with their main, initial job assisting the City of Buffalo Street Sanitation Department with clearing roads to Buffalo hospitals (Bahr 1980, p. 136; Rossi 1999, p. 268). Since Friday afternoon walking multiple blocks had been necessary to reach most hospitals (Bahr 1980, p. 136).

By Sunday evening some areas of Western New York had, along with banning traffic, also banned snowmobiles as a snowmobiler was injured in a collision with a chimney on top of a house and others had come dangerously close to power lines due to the high drifts (Bahr 1980, p. 138). In Newstead, for example, approximately 30-foot (10 m) drifts led to the suspension of even emergency snowmobile traffic due to the power line danger (Bahr 1980, p. 147).

By Monday, many towns in Western New York banned unnecessary travel and declared emergencies (Bahr 1980, p. 147). Driving bans during the storm were imposed in the City of Niagara Falls, the City of Buffalo, Niagara County, and many other locations (USACE 1977, p. 9). Most roads in Cheektowaga were closed by snow overnight Sunday, and the fire department was “checking houses snow-covered to their roofs to make sure nobody was freezing or suffocating” (Bahr 1980, p. 147). The supervisor of the Town of Clarence, in addition to ordering all motorists ticketed, authorized the fire department, if necessary, to seize gasoline to prevent driving (Bahr 1980, p. 147). In Lancaster only two north-south routes were open (Bahr 1980, p. 147). An early Sunday morning helicopter tour by Erie County Sheriff Ken Braun had revealed about 125 cars and trucks almost totally buried in the Lancaster area as well as a young man leaning against a street light that was strung across an intersection (Bahr 1980, 147-148). Some towns were using metal detectors to locate buried cars before using heavy equipment to clear the snow (Bahr 1980, p. 147).

Light snow fell throughout Monday (January 31) with varying winds that gusted at times to more than 40 miles per hour (65 km/h) (Bahr 1980, p. 150) with a peak gust of 46 miles per hour (74 km/h) at the Buffalo airport (NWS Buffalo Office 2006a). Only 20 of the normal more than 400 Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority buses were running and those were reserved for necessary travel (Bahr 1980, p. 148). From when the blizzard struck Friday until Monday there was no intercity bus service, no Amtrak trains, and no commercial air service to Buffalo (Bahr 1980, p. 149). The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had been brought in by the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration to assist in the cleanup effort and received a mission statement on Sunday (January 30) for emergency snow removal (USACE 1977, p. 15). The USACE named their effort "Operation Snow Go 1977" (USACE 1977, p. i) and got their first contractor to start clearing snow on Monday (Bahr 1980, p. 149). Also on Monday, federal disaster coordinator Tom Casey announced that 300 U.S. Army soldiers from an engineer battalion at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, would join the effort (Bahr 1980, p. 150).

Monday night, police continued searching vehicles stranded since Friday, and the wind increased again to 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) (Bahr 1980, p. 154). On Tuesday (February 1), Buffalo Mayor Makowski declared a state of emergency in Buffalo that prohibited non-essential travel (USACE 1977, p. 9). Violation of the travel ban could potentially result in a US$500 fine and 90 days in jail, which was sufficient to limit the number of people ticketed to 97 (Bahr 1980, p. 165). Following a Monday request by New York Governor Carey, Tom Casey, on Tuesday, added Orleans, Genesee, and Wyoming Counties in Western New York and Jefferson and Lewis Counties in northern New York to the emergency declaration (USACE 1977, p. 7).

On Tuesday afternoon, the winds diminished to about 10 mph (16 km/h), and the sun came out (Bahr 1980, 161). On Wednesday (February 2) there was also occasional sun (Bahr 1980, 164). Mail service resumed in the City of Buffalo on Wednesday with the help of six four-wheel drive trucks brought in from Rochester, the first mail delivery since the previous Friday (USACE 1977, p. D-5 which reproduces an article from the Buffalo Courier-Express newspaper of February 12, 1977; Bahr 1980, p. 164). Fuhrmann Boulevard was cleared, allowing workers trapped at the Freezer Queen plant since Friday to leave and freeing Coast Guard personnel trapped behind 15 feet drifts at the end of the road who had been stranded by the snow the night before the blizzard (Thursday night, January 27) (Bahr 1980, 164-165). In addition, many major roads in the City of Buffalo were completely cleared Wednesday (February 2), including South Park Avenue, Delaware, and Tupper (Bahr 1980, p. 165).

Thursday morning (February 3), Buffalo Mayor Makowski lifted the travel ban without consulting state or federal officials, and many people drove into Buffalo. They found that parking lots were not cleared and so left their cars in the roads. This turned many 4-lane roads into 2-lane roads (Bahr 1980, p. 168). The NWS forecast snow for Thursday, and the new snow arrived accompanied by winds that resulted in near-zero visibility (Bahr 1980, p. 168) and some areas claiming worse conditions than the Friday previous when the blizzard initially struck (Bahr 1980, p.169). A state of emergency continued or was declared in areas including Alden, Brant, Evans, Lancaster, Newstead, North Collins, and Wales. Many roads in southern Erie County, as well as Niagara, Chautauqua, and Wyoming Counties were drifted shut (Bahr 1980, p. 169). Thursday night at midnight the City of Buffalo’s driving ban was put back in place (Bahr 1980, p. 170).

Under pressure from many levels of elected government officials to declare blizzard effected regions major disaster areas, President Carter sent his son James Earl (Chip) Carter and special presidential advisor Margaret Costanza to survey the situation Friday February 4; the visit included traveling to Buffalo, Lancaster, and Cheektowaga (Bahr 1980, pp. 171, 173; USACE 1977, p. 7). On Saturday, February 5, President Carter declared the counties of Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans, and Wyoming in Western New York, and the counties of Jefferson and Lewis in northern New York a major disaster area, the first such declaration for a snow caused event. (USACE 1977, pp. i, 8) (although such action would become more commonplace in later years). The previous emergency declaration had resulted in the federal government only assisting in snow removal whereas the major disaster declaration caused the federal government assistance to be “expanded to include everything to protect life and property and to provide whatever materials and equipment that were required to relieve the emergency and restore the area to normalcy” (USACE 1977, p. 8). The major disaster declaration also allowed the local governments to deal directly with private contractors and be reimbursed by the federal government instead of the USACE employing private contractors (Bahr 1980, p. 177).

On Friday morning, February 4, the NWS had forecast that early Saturday a storm would hit with about 3 inches (8 cm) of new snow accompanied by strong winds, but the storm did not strike Buffalo (Bahr 1980, pp. 172, 176). That weekend the Winter Carnival in Buffalo was postponed for the third time due to the too-wintry weather (Bahr 1980, 172-173).

On Monday, February 7, the driving ban that had been in place since Thursday, February 3, at midnight was lifted (USACE 1977, p. 9). However, cars were required to have at least three people in them and a city-wide speed limit of 20 miles per hour (32 km/h) was put in place (USACE 1977, p. D-6 which reproduces an article from the Buffalo Courier-Express newspaper of February 12, 1977). That Monday, at least 100 residents of Concord, NY (Erie County), were still isolated (USACE 1977, p. D-6 which reproduces an article from the Buffalo Courier-Express newspaper of February 12, 1977). However, many colleges and schools in Western New York reopened that day, after having been closed starting on Thursday, January 27 (USACE 1977, p. B-2). This meant that there were seven consecutive snow days. Since the local governments were now able to be directly reimbursed by the federal government for contracting with companies for snow removal, the USACE was not assigned further work as of February 8 but finished work in progress and completed their contracting efforts on February 13 (USACE 1977, p. 26). The coordinator of the federal disaster relief, Casey, pulled out the Fort Bragg troops on Tuesday, February 8. By Wednesday, February 9, the City of Buffalo had signed agreements with private firms to finish the snow removal, a task that would take nine days (Bahr 1980, p. 177).

The temperature rose above freezing for the first time since Christmas (December 25) on Wednesday, February 9, with a high of 34 degrees Fahrenheit (1 °C). Buffalo Mayor Makowski also lifted the rule requiring at least three people per car between the hours of 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. (USACE 1977, p. D-6 which reproduces an article from the Buffalo Courier-Express of February 12, 1977). The next day it rose to 39 degrees Fahrenheit (4 °C) and then made it to the 40s degrees Fahrenheit (5 °C to 9 °C) the next three days (NWS Buffalo Office 2006c). On Friday, February 11, Mayor Makowski lifted the driving ban at noon, but the citywide 20 miles per hour (32 km/h) speed limit remained in effect (USACE 1977, p. D-6 which reproduces an article from the Buffalo Courier-Express newspaper of February 12, 1977). Buffalo city schools reopened on Monday, February 14 (USACE 1977, p. B-2), after more than 10 consecutive snow days.

Results

The high winds of the blizzard packed the snow so tightly and so high that normal snow removal equipment was ineffective and earth moving equipment, such as front end loaders, had to be used (USACE 1977, p. 4). Colonel Daniel Ludwig of the USACE stated that the “snow was very densely packed and that snow plows would be virtually useless on most of the roads” (Rossi 1999, p. 316). NWS meteorologist Ben Kolker noted that on one of the roads near the NWS forecast office, high lifts were used “to dig away at it and break it up like big hunks of rock” (Rossi 1999, p. 288). Along with the packing of the snow, drifts reached 30 feet (10 m) in places (Rossi 1999, p. 287). In Depew, a suburb of Buffalo, volunteer firemen used a trenching machine to get people out of a house that had been drifted shut (Rossi 1999, p. 309). The repeated periods of heavy winds, in the days after the blizzard first struck, combined with the tight packing and high drifting of the snow associated with these winds, resulted in a long cleanup period. During the worst of the storm all commercial travel through Buffalo was shut down. This included the railroads (USACE 1977, p. 23) who used front end loaders to clear snow from the rail yard into open-bodied rail cars and shipped by Conrail east (USACE 1977, p. 24; Wrightson 1977).

In all, 16 of 25 towns in Erie County, as well as the City of Buffalo, declared states of emergency and banned all nonessential traffic at some time during the storm (USACE 1977, p. B-2). The USACE normal work force plus personnel from other USACE installations combined to a total of 353 USACE personnel working on the recovery effort (USACE 1977, p. 12). The USACE Buffalo District overall effort (including both Western and northern New York) reported $6.8 million used in paying 216 private contractors to plow 3,186 miles of road in 9 counties using ~1,000 pieces of equipment and US$700,000 of in-house costs (USACE 1977, p. 28; Bahr 1980, p. 180). Other military assistance included 500 National Guard troops, 320 U. S. Army Airborne troops, the 20th Engineer Brigade from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 65-70 U. S. Marines, as well as assistance from the U. S. Air Force (USACE 1977, p. 14). The National Guard operation was entitled “Task Force Western”, with headquarters at the Connecticut Street Armory in Buffalo, and included providing 9-10 Army-type ambulances along with operators for use in the City of Buffalo when almost no normal ambulances were able to operate (Rossi 1999, pp. 348, 351-352).

The Salvation Army fed between 67,000 and 176,000 people, provided clothing for about 4,500, and housed 851, for a cost of US$75,000 to US$150,000, using 1,000 volunteers and over 400 snowmobiles (Bahr 1980, p. 181; Rossi 1999, pp. 338, 341) . A Salvation Army official noted that the disaster was unique in that “it covered 9 counties and nobody could get in” (Rossi 1999, p. 339). The American Red Cross distributed 5 tons (4500 kg) of food at 84-92 locations, feeding about 50,000 people (Bahr 1980, p. 180; Rossi 1999, p. 244) .

There were 23 total storm-related deaths in Western New York, with 11 in the City of Buffalo, plus 7 more in the rest of Erie County, 3 in Wyoming County, and 1 each in both Niagara and Orleans County (USACE 1977, p. 6). At least nine were found buried in cars, while others involved heart attacks while shoveling snow and car accidents (USACE 1977, p. 6). The just stated death tolls are listed in the USACE report on cleanup efforts in the storm (USACE 1977) while a slightly different death toll is listed by the NWS on their Blizzard of 1977 webpage which indicates 29 deaths resulted from the storm (NWS Buffalo Office 2006a) . The Buffalo Area Chamber of Commerce estimated a total economic loss for Erie and Niagara Counties combined of US$221,490,000 for the approximately 5.5 day period starting on January 28 with 175,000 people losing wages of US$36,250,000 (USACE 1977, p. 25). It was estimated that over $20 million was spent removing snow (NWS Buffalo Office 2006a), with USACE alone spending over $6 million on contractors in Western New York (USACE 1977, p. 27).

Equipment from places including Colorado, New York City, and Toronto were used in the cleanup of snow (USACE 1977, p. 22). Abandoned vehicles were towed to designated parking areas and the snow hauled to dump areas where some remained until early May (USACE 1977, p. 22). Although March was 8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal (Bahr 1980, p. 181), the snow melted gradually such that there were not significant flooding problems (Rossi 1999, p. 318).

The storm has become a historical touchstone in the Buffalo, New York, area; anyone who lived in the area during the storm has a story about what they did during it. A board game, called "The Blizzard of '77 Travel Game" was created after the storm. In it the players "drive" around the board, trying to collect goods such as groceries and gasoline, before the storm hits. Once the storm hits, the board is flipped over to the "Blizzard" side and the players must continue in conditions, translated on the board into spaces like "Whiteout" or "Skid on ice," which have ill effects for the players. When the board is flipped to the "Blizzard" side only 1 die is rolled instead of 2 dice. Almost every space on the "flip" side of the board game is one of these spaces, which makes further play very frustrating, thereby simulating life during the Blizzard. A set of six glasses were also sold by the Buffalo Courier-Express newspaper with reproductions of newspaper articles about the storm on them. Two books have been written about the Blizzard of '77, "The Blizzard" by Robert Bahr (Bahr 1980) and "White Death – The Blizzard of '77" which is a compilation by Erno Rossi of accounts of the blizzard from both Southern Ontario and Western New York (Rossi 1999; note the original edition of the book was entitled "White Death – Blizzard of '77" and published in 1978). This infamous storm also had a song written about it by the band Alexisonfire, the song is describing the horrible conditions during the storm and how it is a "crisis", the backing vocals occasionally scream "one nine seven seven!!" which is the year of when the storm occurred.

In Southern Ontario

Parts of the Canadian province of Ontario lying near the northern border of Lake Erie were also struck hard by the Blizzard of 1977. Due to the geographical proximity to Western New York and as a result of sharing a location on the edge of frozen and snow-covered Lake Erie, parts of Southern Ontario experienced similar conditions to Western New York during the blizzard. However, reports seem to indicate the worst conditions were more limited to close to the lakeshore than in Western New York. For example, compare reports in Rossi (1999, p. 121) that conditions were much better 1 to 2 miles (2 to 3 km) inland and reports in Rossi (1999, p. 187) from a military commander noting an airborne view made it clear that the worst was right along the shore with reports in Western New York such as those of snow near street light level in well-inland Lancaster (Bahr 1980, p. 148). .

As in Western New York, the storm struck suddenly during the day Friday with zero visibility (e.g. Rossi 1999, pp. 12, 50) and blowing and drifting snow making roads impassable as well as stranding many vehicles (Rossi 1999). Looting of radios from abandoned cars as well as looting of pop from a truck was reported (Rossi 1999, p. 63). Friday night 250 people were stranded in the International Nickel Company plant in Port Colborne (Rossi 1999, p. 178). Although schools closed when informed of the impending storm, the rapid onset of the storm resulted in about 1,000 students being stranded overnight Friday, January 28, in Port Colborne and Wainfleet schools (about 2,000 students were stranded in the Niagara Region altogether) (Rossi 1999, p. 80). By Saturday night (January 29) at 6 p.m., 800 students were still trapped, with 600 of them in Wainfleet and Port Colborne (Rossi 1999, p. 80). On Sunday, the remaining students were taken from the schools with the help of the militia, although some students were housed in nearby houses (Rossi 1999, 80-81). In some areas, buses had become stranded trying to take children home from school Friday and so bus drivers took the children to nearby houses (Rossi 1999, p. 128).

Snowmobiles were widely used to deliver aid and transport those needing transportation. Niagara Regional Police Service enlisted the help of 60 snowmobiles and 15 four wheel drive vehicles that they used for regular police calls as well as to deliver food and medication (Rossi 1999, p. 45). Snowmobiles were also used to transport doctors and nurses (Rossi 1999, p. 47) and Ontario Hydro workers (Rossi 1999, p. 140). In Fort Erie, snowmobiles were being dispatched from all six fire halls to provide aid (Rossi 1999, p. 176). Citizens Band (CB) radio operators were used by the Niagara Regional Police for communication (Rossi 1999, p. 47). The radio station CHOW facilitated communication through allowing people to call in and airing needs on the radio (Rossi 1999, p. 129), a role confirmed via a plaque from the Port Colborne Chamber of Commerce and scrolls from the Welland Chamber of Commerce (Rossi 1999, p. 131).

The Canadian Forces assisted in the situation under police direction (Rossi 1999, p. 46). For example, the Mayor of Port Colborne requested military assistance from the Emergency Measures Organization in St. Catharines that resulted in an Army Reserve Battalion being sent and militia assisting in searching for stranded motorists (Rossi 1999, 148-149). In a deployment headquartered at the Regional Police Station in Niagara Falls and stationed at the Lake Street Armory in St. Catharines and the Niagara Falls Armory in Niagara Falls, 156 reserves militia and 9 regular force soldiers helped in disaster relief (Rossi 1999, 183-184). Regional authorities requested military assistance on Saturday afternoon (January 29) and the first unit was called at 3:30 p.m., with 130 employed in the operation by Sunday (January 30) morning (Rossi 1999, 183-184). Their initial priorities were to “preserve life, clear main arteries into the communities of Port Colborne and Fort Erie, and try to open No. 3 Highway between Port Colborne and Fort Erie” (Rossi 1999, p. 185). The military was also involved in the London, Ontario-area with reserves plus a 900-man infantry battalion (Rossi 1999, p. 186), but conditions there were not as serious with four wheel drive vehicles being generally sufficient for transportation (Rossi 1999, p. 187).

Areas affected by the blizzard included St. Catharines, Welland, Port Colborne, Fort Erie, and the Wainfleet area (Rossi 1999, p. 147), while Toronto and Hamilton were not hit badly by the storm (Rossi 1999, p. 148). The Port Colborne area was strongly affected (e.g. Rossi p. 51), while Wainfleet was very hard hit, and in particular the Long Beach area and the Lowbanks area were very strongly affected by the storm (Rossi 1999, pp. 52, 126). As earlier noted, the most extreme conditions were right along the lakeshore (Rossi 1999, pp. 120, 187) with much better conditions one to two miles (2 to 3 km) inland (Rossi 1999, p. 120). In Wainfleet, one resident reported that early in the storm the wind broke a window facing the lake and snow rapidly began drifting in the house, which caused significant damage (Rossi 1999, pp. 9, 11). In the Lowbanks area, a resident reported that the storm smashed in windows and collapsed doors; they had lost power and heat and were burning furniture in the fireplace to keep warm (Rossi 1999, p. 126). Ontario Hydro noted that some power outages lasted 72 hours while it took an average of 24 hours to get power restored for some larger customers (Rossi 1999, p. 141). The depth of drifts in the hardest hit areas was extreme. Snowmobilers reported snowmobiling over vehicles as well as onto the roof of a house without knowing it (Rossi 1999, pp. 63, 58) and snowmobiling over the top of a school bus without being able to see its roof (Rossi 1999, p. 174). In the Long Beach area of Wainfleet, snow reached the power lines with people stepping over and rolling under them and only the chimneys of houses were visible above the snow (Rossi 1999, p. 52). Along the lakeshore in Wainfleet the mayor reported drifts up to 45 feet (14 m) high (Rossi 1999, p. 154), and in Lowbanks a military officer reported drifts of 30 to 40 feet (10 to 12 m) with only the steeple of a church visible (Rossi 1999, p. 184). One drift estimated at 40 feet (12 m) remained until June 1 (Rossi 1999, p. 110), while snow banks reportedly lasted until the first week of June in the Cedar Bay area (Rossi 1999, p. 53).

The extreme depths of snow resulted in farmers in Wainfleet dumping milk since it could not be transported out, and they also had trouble getting food to their animals (Rossi 1999, p. 153). The snow was difficult to plow, at least in some cases. One road, near the lakeshore, could not be opened with a big front end loader or a large bulldozer; instead, a small bulldozer with a bucket took 2.5 days to clear about 300 yards (270 m) of road (Rossi 1999, p. 111). One resident noted that they were snowed in for 19 days, before being plowed out on February 14 (Rossi 1999, p. 122). One effect of the prolonged confinement at home many people experienced in the fall of that year — a marked increase in births at local hospitals (almost 18% in Regional Niagara in Canada) (Rossi 1999, p. 219) .

In northern New York

Portions of northern New York state, particularly Jefferson and Lewis Counties, were hard hit by the blizzard of 1977. At 3:10 p.m. on Friday, January 28, Watertown reported zero visibility and wind gusting to 28 miles per hour (45 km/h) (USACE 1977, p. 5) as the cold front that had earlier moved through Southern Ontario and Western New York advanced through northern New York. The Watertown region got 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) with the cold front, but unfrozen Lake Ontario (in contrast to frozen Lake Erie) along with atmospheric conditions favorable for lake effect snow allowed lake effect snow bands to form that resulted in storm totals of 66 inches (168 cm) in Watertown, 72.5 inches (182 cm) in Mansville, 93 (236 cm) inches in Ft. Drum, and more than 100 inches (more than 250 cm) in areas southeast of Watertown (Dewey 1977). The snow, along with the winds, resulted in drifts of 15-30 feet (5 to 10 m) and the stranding of more than 1000 motorists (Dewey 1977).

After beginning with the cold front passage at 3:10 p.m. on Friday, January 28, at Watertown, the blizzard's winds peaked at 49 miles per hour (79 km/h) at 7 p.m. (USACE 1977, p. 5). That night about 150 people were stranded at the Chesebrough-Pond factory in Watertown (Rossi 1999, p. 321). Three radio announcers at AM radio station 1410 WOTT in Watertown were stranded without food at the station and each of them worked 8-hour shifts to keep the station on 24 hours per day, playing music and taking hundreds of calls from North Country residents in need of services such as fuel, food, or just reassurance. Jefferson County Sheriff's deputies brought the announcers provisions via snowmobile on day 5 of their entrapment. Oddly enough, though the snow was piled up over the roof of the studios on Gifford Road, the morning announcer's car, a VW Bug parked next to the building, was totally clear of snow, thanks to prevailing winds, though it took him over 5 hours to travel the 8 miles to his home in Brownville, as only one lane was clear on several of the roads he traveled. During the storm a Radio Emergency Associated Communication Teams (REACT) CB team set up at the plant to coordinate help for those needing things such as medical assistance (Rossi 1999, 322-323). The Red Cross also set up at the factory (Rossi 1999, p. 323) and snowmobiles and four wheel drive vehicles were dispatched (Rossi 1999, p. 324). After a lull at Watertown, the storm restarted at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, January 29, and lasted until 10 p.m. This portion of the storm included gusts to 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) and heavy snow (USACE 1977, p. 5). The storm then abated at Watertown, but at 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 30, visibility returned to zero. By midnight Sunday, 34 inches (86 cm) of new snow had fallen since Friday, January 28, at 7 a.m. (USACE 1977, p. 5). The blizzard continued throughout Monday, January 31, with 17 additional inches (43 cm) of new snow before the snow stopped around 8 a.m. on Tuesday, February 1 (USACE 1977, p. 5).

Due to the lower wind speeds than those that occurred in Western New York, in northern New York the snow was not as hard packed according to Ben Kolker of the NWS office in Buffalo (Rossi 1999, p. 287). However, northern New York did have significant snowfall along with significant drifting. On Tuesday, February 1, Jefferson and Lewis Counties were among the counties added to the initial federal emergency declaration (USACE 1977, p. 7), and on Saturday, February 5, were among the counties declared major disaster areas (USACE 1977, p. 8). The New York District of the USACE assisted with snow clearing by having contractors clear a total of 450 miles (720 km) of roadway in Jefferson and Lewis Counties (USACE 1977, p. 27). U. S. Marines were at Camp Drum (near Watertown) for cold weather training and some of these assisted in Jefferson and Lewis Counties with 14, 25-ton, Amtrack vehicles (USACE 1977, p. 14). The National Guard assisted with track vehicles, and U. S. Army troops from Camp Drum also helped with disaster relief (USACE 1977, p. 14).

Since food and supplies were in short supply in the area by the end of the storm, on Wednesday, February 1, the travel ban was lifted from 7 a.m. until noon in order that 1,900 stranded travelers could leave the area (USACE 1977, pp. 5, B-6). Agricultural interests were adversely affected by the storm, with the dairy industry hardest hit due to farmers’ inability to get milk to market (USACE 1977, pp. 6, 25). In Jefferson County alone, about 85% of dairy farmers were forced to dump milk because tank trucks could not reach farms. This contributed to $8 million in agricultural losses (USACE 1977, p. 25). Other problems included barns collapsing from the snow (seven in Jefferson County), feed and grain shortages, disposal of manure, and farmers being unable to reach barns to feed cattle (USACE 1977, p. 25-26). Five deaths were reported in northern New York as a result of the storm, all due to heart attacks (four occurring while shoveling snow and another in his car) (USACE 1977, p. 6).

On February 9, about a week after the storm ended, the average snow depth in the Black River basin (about 2,000 square miles (5000 km²) which include Jefferson, Lewis, and other counties) was 40.4 inches (102.5 cm), having a liquid equivalent of 8.06 inches (205 mm) that raised flooding concerns (USACE 1977, p. D-8 which reproduces an article from the Watertown Daily News newspaper of February 9, 1977). One location about 20 miles southeast of Watertown, Sears Pond, recorded a snow depth of 77.3 inches (196.0 cm) with a liquid equivalent of 19.23 inches (488 mm) (USACE 1977, p. D-8 which reproduces an article from the Watertown Daily News of February 9, 1977).

See also

References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Accessed 3/3/2010
  2. ^ a b c d Accessed 3/3/2010
  3. ^ [1] Accessed 3/3/2010

Further reading


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