Final Score: Us 1, Storm 0.
Yeah, we won. The Blizzard of 2014 came, but did not conquer.
This thing hit at midday Monday and squatted until Wednesday. Winds gusted to 62 mph, whiteouts blinded drivers, wind chills scraped minus-40.
Yet not a single person – cause for celebration – died. Hundreds of people were not stranded for days on the Thruway, as there were in the December 2010 storm. No kids were trapped on school buses for hours, as with the November 2000 calamity. The horror stories were not repeated.
It was no accident.
I went back Wednesday to the crossroad of Harlem Road and Seneca Street in West Seneca. It was a winter wonderland of white. Yet on the Thruway overpass a half-block away, cars and tractor-trailers rolled along at 60 mph.
Along the same spot barely three years ago, vehicles were stacked bumper-to- snow-covered-bumper. People desperate for food, water or a bathroom slid down embankments and trudged to convenience stores. People on nearby streets carried food and water to those – including a 300-pound, diabetic man I encountered – who could not climb down off the road.
Some people were stranded for more than 17 hours, saved from frostbite or worse by the blessing of above-freezing temperatures. It was an instant refugee camp, built by bureaucratic ineptitude. Thruway Authority officials admitted they screwed up – notably by not closing the road until seven hours after a jackknifed tractor-trailer blocked it – and promised to do better.
Thruway officials closed the road from Williamsville to the Pennsylvania line to trucks in the afternoon and to all traffic Monday night. The next afternoon, they shut the road to Rochester.
Norma Reeves is sales associate at Al-Ross Screen Printing, at the corner of Harlem and Seneca. Three years ago, she staffed the counter while a co-worker delivered food and water to motorists stranded a half-block away.
“It definitely was a good idea to close the Thruway right away this time,” she said.
State DOT officials, similarly, on Monday shut Routes 219 and 400, notorious for Snow Belt beltings. Various towns banned non-emergency travel. “You have to say travel ‘ban,’ not ‘advisory,’ ” said Reeves. “You say ‘advisory,’ and people think they can get someplace when really they can’t.”
There were reasons why the Blizzard of 2014 hit hard but left little mark. Unlike in 2010 and 2000, we got plenty of advance notice. But mostly, I think we cushioned the blow by acting instead of reacting.
It went beyond road closings and travel bans. In the wake of the 2010 disaster, the Thruway Authority put blocking gates on 16 Buffalo-area entrance ramps. They came in handy when the road shut this week. There now are movable barriers on medians, to let cars escape gridlock.
Next step: Put lights on exit ramps from here to Rochester, so drivers blasted by lake-effect storms can get off of the road.
Once reluctant to close stretches of Thruway, officials now embrace reality.
“Once people get stuck,” the authority’s Tom Pericak said, “the Thruway closes itself.”
A serious storm has come and gone, claiming no deaths and little damage.
The happy ending was no accident.