'Storm of the decade' brings whiteout conditions, bone-chilling temperatures - The Buffalo News

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'Storm of the decade' brings whiteout conditions, bone-chilling temperatures

Add “Blizzard of '14” to our community lexicon.

We'd heard the warnings for days. Gusty winds. Lots of snow. Frigid cold.

Over the weekend, we prepared. Shelves were emptied at area grocers. Lines for gas. Shovels and snow blowers made at the ready.

Then, it came, snarling its teeth in a way even hearty Buffalo Niagara wasn't quite used to.

One look and you knew: this one was different.

Some made a break for it Monday afternoon to get home early. By afternoon rush hour, that became a tale of those just trying to get home.

The Skyway was closed first after a five-car collision.

Gridlock quickly ensued with cars stacked one behind another from downtown Buffalo to Lackawanna.

Winds whipped snow through area roadways, casting a white curtain over the windshields of thousands of motorists, zeroing visibility and leading to accidents or cars going off the road.

The Thruway, from Lackawanna to Ripley, also was closed, first to tractor-trailers Monday afternoon, then later to all vehicles.

Other major routes were also shut down. Emergency declarations were made and travel bans were ordered. Schools were pre-emptively closed. And flights were diverted from Buffalo Niagara or, in most cases, canceled altogether.

Whether this blizzard will come close to matching its infamous predecessor of 37 years ago probably won't be known for another day or two, depending on its duration and ferocity, but this touted “storm of the decade” intensified quickly, officially attaining blizzard status Monday.

It was the first time such a classification was made in Buffalo Niagara since 1993.

“A blizzard, by definition, is when you have sustained or frequent wind gusts greater than or equal to 35 mph and visibility less than one-quarter mile for at least three hours,” said Tom Paone, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Buffalo, Monday evening. “We've already kind of achieved that.”

As a weary region finally settled in at home Monday night – and collectively took a breath – an epiphany: what about today?

“It's going to still look pretty bad,” said Paone.

All in all, not much isn't going to change at least until late tonight or early Wednesday.

“Places like Hamburg, Orchard Park, the Boston Hills will probably still be under the gun,” Paone said, explaining that forecast models show the heaviest snow bands flirting with the Buffalo metro area again at some still unknown time today.

“There will be blowing snow and very cold temperatures all over,” added Paone.

That's why the blizzard warning continues for the whole of Erie County, Genesee and Wyoming counties through 6 a.m. Wednesday, according to the Weather Service. Up to a foot of lake-effect snow was expected in the affected areas by this morning, with as much as 17 more inches expected today and 1-3 more inches tonight for storm totals “of more than three feet in the most persistent lake snows.”

The heavy snowfall, combined with strong southwest winds gusting to 45 mph, was expected to continue rendering visibilities “near zero” at times. Frigid conditions – daytime highs of 5-10 degrees – combined with the winds were also expected to force wind chill values as low as minus 30 degrees. A wind chill warning remained in effect until 6 p.m. today.

“Dangerously cold wind chills will pose a risk for frost bite and hypothermia for anyone outside for even very short periods of time,” warned the Weather Service. “This is a life-threatening cold for those not in shelter.”

Buffalo schools and nearly every district in Erie County, along with all courts, Buffalo library branches and almost all municipal halls announced they'd be closed today because of the extreme weather.

The Weather Service, along with numerous government agencies, including the state's highest official, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, advised against travel during the blizzard.

“You have to be smart, you have to be prudent,” said Cuomo. “This is not the time to take risks.”

“Western New Yorkers have experience with snow, but this is something different,” added the governor. “This is snow with extreme Arctic cold.”

Cuomo ordered the Thruway closed between Lackawanna and Ripley on Monday and declared a pre-emptive “State of Emergency” in Western New York counties Monday and said up to 1,000 state personnel from eastern New York are on their way to the region to assist with storm-related efforts. The National Guard was also activated, he said.

Besides the Thruway, Cuomo said the state Department of Transportation was closing routes 400 and 219 in Erie County. The Skyway, in both directions, was closed to traffic Monday afternoon between downtown, and Ridge Road in Lackawanna and was expected to remain so until further notice, according to Michael J. DeGeorge, City Hall spokesman.

Although not unexpected, the hairy winter weather packed a such a strong wallop that even the most chiseled Buffalo travelers gasped.

“Is there a travel ban, do you know?” Ray Gianpoala, an NFTA bus driver asked a reporter, while parked at the Southgate Plaza in West Seneca late Monday. “There should be. If I were you, I would get off the road.”

Meanwhile, Thruway traveler Cynthia Seiler, of Philadelphia, was seeking shelter at the Hampton Inn near the Thruway exit on Ridge Road in West Seneca. Seiler had just dropped off her daughter at ballet school in Toronto. She was returning to Philadelphia on Monday when the squalls hit at about 3:30 p.m. Seiler said she was forced to stop and get a room at the Hampton Inn Monday evening.

“You couldn't see,” Seiler said. “I couldn't even see turning into here.”

When a lake-effect snow band set up late Monday afternoon over metro Buffalo, it made for a harrowing commute for thousands of motorists.

Lines of cars inched through blowing snow and low-visibility conditions on South Park Avenue from near the First Niagara Center all the way to its intersection with Ridge Road near Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna. The slow moving – and often stopped – traffic also was observed on McKinley Parkway, Hopkins Street, Michigan Avenue, Scott and Washington streets during the afternoon rush hour.

Plow driver Ted Chirico, of Orchard Park, couldn't remember anything quite like Monday in his now 26 years behind the plow.

Chirico had just a few driveways to plow on his road and then was just going home to get out of the blizzard.

Air travelers were also severely impacted by the deteriorating weather conditions Monday. Numerous flights both into and out of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport were canceled Monday evening.

Given that the temperature clung to the single digits by late Monday evening, it was almost hard to fathom that the day began with 45 degrees under heavy rain conditions in the wee hours of the morning. Then, a powerful cold front, which packed a peak wind gust of 60 mph at BNIA at 3:26 a.m., sharply dropped the mercury by 20 degrees by mid-morning, and then another 20 degrees by 7 p.m.

“This is a much more normal winter than either of the last two,” quipped Paone.

News Staff Reporters Maki Becker, Barbara O'Brien and Jay Rey contributed to this report. email: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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