By Lizzie Presser
People walk from a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y. Monday, Dec. 26, 2022, after a massive snow storm blanketed the city. Along with drifts and travel bans, many streets were impassible due to abandoned vehicles. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
BUFFALO, N.Y. — A horrific snowstorm that ripped across Western New York has left a grim Christmas in its wake as Buffalonians dig their way out this week.
Meteorologists from the National Weather Service have dubbed the blizzard that began last Thursday as a “once-in-a-generation storm.” Wind gusts of more than 70 mph hit some parts of the region and blizzard conditions continued for 40 hours straight, sweeping snow drifts for two days and eliminating all visibility at the Buffalo airport.
“You can’t even see in front of your face,” said Phillip Pandolfo, a Buffalo-based meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
With the storm largely over and wet temperatures settling in this week, the heavy snow still poses a danger to those shoveling.
By mid-week, driving bans had lifted in most of Erie County, including the hard-hit northern suburbs. But the driving ban remained in effect Wednesday for the city of Buffalo, where many people were still stuck in their homes and nearly 700 National Grid customers still had no power.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz slammed Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown during a news conference, saying the county and state were forced to help with snow removal in the city.
“The city unfortunately is always the last one to not be open,” Poloncarz said. “It’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth.”
Don Paul, a meteorologist who began reporting for WIVB in Buffalo in 1984 was skeptical that this blizzard would exceed the Blizzard of ‘77. But the snow, combined with incredibly powerful winds, created an unprecedented tempest.
“I would say in my time here since 84, this was the most ferocious storm I’ve seen,” Paul said.
Typically the lake effect snow that pummels Western New York sweeps down to the southtowns and the Southern Tier. By contrast, this year’s storm hit the city head on and the northtowns.
And even though the storm of 2001 dumped seven feet of snow over Christmas Eve and the November storm dropped 77 inches on the Buffalo Bills’ stadium, neither of those major snow events was accompanied by the sustained winds this blizzard brought.
“For a blizzard, you need either sustained winds over 35 or frequent gusts over 35. And this time we had sustained winds of 40 to 50 and gusts of 60 to 70 plus,” Paul said. “It took that bomb cyclone to our north to produce winds of that magnitude. So the low pressure system that steered these winds and caused them to accelerate so much was almost hurricane intensity.”
Paul said he would have been stuck in his driveway this week if it were not for the help of a friendly neighbor who shoveled it for him. It’s that spirit that has buoyed Buffalonians throughout the storm.
While the driving ban was in full effect on Christmas Day in the city, a skeleton crew walked from their homes to open up their local pub on Elmwood Avenue and whip up a free breakfast for first responders, firemen, plow drivers, and anyone in need.
Josh Mullin, co-owner of Jack Rabbit, walked about two miles from his home on the West Side and was surprised when nearly 300 people turned up that afternoon for a meal and a place to warm up.
“We didn’t really realize how many people in our neighborhood didn’t have power,” Mullin said. “So there were people in here huddled around power outlets just charging their stuff, just trying to get warm. Some people had been without power for two days.”
Mullin’s co-owner, Jake Monti, had experience snowshoeing across Washington state in 2019. He strapped his shoes on Christmas morning to check on his neighbors and then enlist a few friends to help his staff at the restaurant.
“There’s tears of joy just being able to get out the house, everyone coming in,” Monti said. “We had armies of people shoveling out strangers’ driveways. People are helping us shovel in front of our business. So it’s been just incredible to see the community come together the way that it has.”
In the northern suburb of Getzville, the volunteer fire department received a 911 call at about 11 a.m. the day after Christmas. As their truck headed out, they hit a wall of snow about a quarter of a mile away from the house, said Getzville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. David Morales.
Once the firemen arrived on foot, they realized the individual needed to get to the hospital as quickly as possible. Soon word started to spread in the neighborhood that someone needed help. By the time the firefighters were leaving the house, dozens of neighbors had whipped out shovels, snow blowers, and even sleds to clear a path to reach the ambulance.
“After everything that we’ve been seeing for the duration of the storm, that was really something that lifted our spirits and kept us going,” Morales said. “Normally we’re there to support the community and to serve the community. But that day, the community served us.”
Leigh Giangreco is a journalist who has contributed to The Washington Post, Block Club Chicago, Politico Magazine, Eater Chicago, and the Washingtonian, among others. A native Buffalonian, she is based in Chicago.
By Leigh Giangreco | Photographs by Libby March
By Tory N. Parrish