BUFFALO, N.Y. – It was a snowstorm that halted responses by emergency services and forced drivers to seek shelter in stores. Still, despite all the warnings about the approaching storm, more than three dozen people were killed, and many others were recused from the grips of what has been labeled a “once-in-a-generation” storm.
To the surprise of many, it wasn’t Atlanta or Houston or even Charlotte that made headlines for being unprepared for a winter storm, but rather a city in the Northeast’s Snowbelt – Buffalo, New York.
The metro region averages around 95 inches of snow yearly, but experts believe the ingredients for a catastrophic storm aligned as few winter storms do. The impacts were too much to handle even for the best-prepared communities.
Light snowfall began days before the main event, which kicked off on Dec. 23 and lasted through Christmas Eve. During the heart of the blizzard, winds reached hurricane force, and snow piled up in feet, not inches.
Unlike the November 2022 event that dropped more than 80 inches of snow in parts of the metro, temperatures, the scope of the storm and the length of the impacts all outdid recent events and had many people comparing the system to the blizzard of 1977.
“I worked in the National Weather Service office in Buffalo for over 30 years, and this is probably right where the blizzard of ’77, the worst storm I’ve seen there during the winter time,” said FOX Weather winter storm specialist Tom Niziol.
Many residents were out and about on the Friday before Christmas, preparing for the holiday weekend instead of power outages, zero visibilities, and the threat of hyperthermia.
County and city leaders held news conferences warning of the impending disaster, but the hustle and bustle coincided with the start of blizzard conditions that lasted 37 hours and sent wind chills to more than 20 degrees below zero.
During the multi-day event, videos emerged from western New York of vehicles abandoned on roadways and people taking shelter in stores.
More than two dozen people spent part of their Christmas holiday in a Target store while they waited for visibilities to improve and damaging wind gusts to relax.
“It’s that combination of impacts that produces a catastrophe,” Niziol said. “Heavy snow and strong winds drifting it, to get drifts 10, 12, and 14 feet high. Arctic temperatures – you get stuck in your car, and now those temperatures and wind chills (are) below zero. You can’t see outside your car. What do you do? You panic. You try to get somewhere for help. You get stuck in a snow bank. The winds overcome you. And that’s where several people had died. The last feature here is the high-population area. It occurred in an urban setting, and this is where it all comes together to produce what I refer to as a weather catastrophe.”
On top of Mother Nature’s factors, some leaders in the Empire State questioned the local response to the disaster.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has been at the forefront of messaging and said there were likely more local governments, including the city of Buffalo, could have done in preparing for the blizzard.
“Storm, after storm, after storm, after storm, the city, unfortunately, is the last one to be open, and that shouldn’t be the case,” Poloncarz said during a Wednesday news conference. “It is embarrassing to tell you the truth.”
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said there was little more than could have been done, considering the historic nature of the winter blast.
“People have been working around the clock since the beginning of this storm,” Brown said. “Some people handle that pressure a lot differently. Some keep working. Some keep trying to help the residents of our community, and some break down and lash out.”
If climatology plays out, Buffalo likely has yet to experience its last snow event of the winter weather season, even though the region has already seen accumulations of 6 inches above what a typical year produces. The second-largest city in New York has already seen more than 101 inches of snow, with wintry precipitation possible through at least April.