A monster lake-effect snowstorm that pummeled areas from South Buffalo to Alden with up to 6 feet of snow in 24 hours is responsible for at least four deaths, authorities reported.
Details of the deaths were still sketchy late Tuesday, but three of them apparently were heart attacks resulting from moving snow or cars. The fourth died as a result of an automobile accident, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz announced.
There is no name for the great wall of lake-effect snow that unleashed historic amounts of snow through the midsection of Erie County and to the south Tuesday while the sun shone brightly on the northern half.
Lancaster, South Cheektowaga, Elma, Alden and West Seneca took the brunt of the attack, along with areas like Hamburg, Orchard Park and East Aurora and towns and villages further south.
While 60 inches of snow was reported at a site a mile southeast of Lancaster, forecasters noted that just six miles northwest from that spot, only 3.9 inches fell at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
Dave Zaff of the National Weather Service in Buffalo said there’s no meteorological term for the phenomenon that created that strikingly pronounced wall of clouds and churned out the unbelievable amount of snow.
“Whiteout to blue sky in a very, very short distance,” he said.
It’s not unheard of when it comes to lake-effect storms. But the snow totals? They may be for the history books.
“This will be a historic event,” Zaff said. “Absolutely. It is a historic event.”
Some are calling it “Snowvember.”
Between 120 and 150 vehicles were stranded on the Thruway most of Tuesday.
Schools closed on Tuesday in the hard-hit areas and Buffalo Public Schools announced Tuesday evening that they would close again today.
The historic lake-effect snowstorm was brutal enough to hit the early segment of the national network news and garnered a pair of Weather Channel meteorologists. Stephanie Abrams and Mike Bettes both reported the storm from Hamburg.
The weather also captured the attention of cyberspace. “Western New York” was listed as a “trending” item on Facebook late Tuesday.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo directed 150 National Guardsmen to help South Buffalo and the Southtowns dig out and Poloncarz declared a state of emergency.
Mercy Hospital was working with a shoestring staff. “Many of our nurses couldn’t get into work today,” said Shanel Orsi, a nurse who ended up getting a ride to work from a snowmobiler. “They wanted to, but they couldn’t get in.”
Half the flights in and out of Buffalo’s airport were canceled.
The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority canceled several Metro Bus lines to heavily hit areas Tuesday and Amtrak canceled passenger from Albany to Cleveland.
Officials were concerned about weather-related injuries.
Clearing cars and driveways, even by snowblower, can tax the cardiac system. Hypothermia can set in quickly, especially in Tuesday’s extreme conditions that saw wind chills below zero in many parts of the region. Walking through hip-deep snow drifts is also dangerous.
“If you’re trying to wade through 4 feet of snow, I don’t care if you’re a triathlete, there an extreme risk,” Zaff said.
Authorities also were cautioning homeowners – especially those with high-efficiency furnaces – to keep their outside air vents free of snow to prevent a house from filling up with poisonous carbon monoxide.
As many as seven people may have lost a finger clearing out snowblowers.
Other stories abounded from the path of the storm.
Firefighters in South Buffalo struggled to get to their calls and were taking care of a pregnant woman at a fire hall late Monday.
Emergency responders in Orchard Park were finding cars abandoned in snow drifts, and firefighters in Lancaster and South Buffalo were having difficulty getting their rigs to calls.
In Buffalo, Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield said crews carried gurneys down snow-covered streets because ambulances were unable to get through, and utilized snowmobiles on rescue calls.
“They’ve done that a number of times,” Whitfield said. “That’s common practice right now.”
Lancaster was among the towns to take the brunt of the relentless storm that stubbornly planted itself over the region.
Plows could barely get in and out of the highway barns because of stranded cars. Paramedics ditched their ambulances in snowbanks in favor of snowmobiles to get to emergencies.
“It’s like Beirut here,” said Jeffrey Bono, disaster coordinator for the Lancaster Volunteer Fire Corps. “I kid you not. It’s horrible.”
But in Amherst, the skies were blue and the town’s streets crews was busy picking up fall leaves. And in Buffalo neighborhoods north of downtown, parents scratched their heads as their children cheered a snow day with less than 2 inches on the ground.
The weather service had issued a watch Saturday afternoon for the storm with dire predictions of snow of up to 2 feet. If only they had been right.
The radar made it increasingly clear that a monster storm was headed for Buffalo.
But where would it hit?
The Southtowns saw its share, with totals in the 3- to 4-foot range, but the most unyielding of the snow fell from South Buffalo across to Alden.
Snow fell at a rate of 3 to 5 inches an hour, rendering snowblowers useless and plows immobile.
“For a 24-hour event, it’s big,” Zaff said.
When the final tabulations are counted this afternoon, many of those areas – especially towns further to the south – will be adding even more depth to those totals.
On the plus side, temperatures were moderate by winter storm standards, ranging from the high teens to the mid-20s.
The nearly stationary band of snow remained in place all day and into Tuesday evening, relentlessly blitzing areas along the Lake Erie shoreline and across most of Erie County south of the Thruway, according to radar images.
The storm shifted further into southern Erie County during the evening hours, losing some of its steam but still dropping additional accumulation in the Boston Hills area and into Wyoming County.
The lake-effect storm was expected to creep back up north this morning, but showing a more merciful side. Expected new totals will likely be counted in inches instead of with yard sticks.
Southtowners won’t get much of a window to dig out from Tuesday’s snowfall, which cut visibility to near zero for hours on end as heavy snow quickly piled up on roadways, in parking lots and driveways far faster than they could be plowed.
Route 5 – the main artery along the lake shore between Dunkirk and Buffalo – was impassable in most areas Tuesday.
Numerous cars were abandoned in ditches between Angola and Lakeview, and some of them became unrecognizable as they were buried beneath the deep snow and drifts.
Despite the travel ban, some ventured out, hoping to traverse the road in spite of the hazardous elements.
Tuesday afternoon, law enforcement turned away any motorists along Route 5 at Lakeview Road headed toward the city.
At that stretch of Route 5, the snow had accumulated at least a foot or more in the roadway. And, because of the heavy snowfall, there was little way to differentiate one side of the road from the other or to see any landmarks or street signs along the way.
Plows are useless when the snow is more than 2 or 3 feet deep, authorities said.
“You need heavy equipment,” said meteorologist Jon Hitchcock.
All 35 pieces of the City of Buffalo’s heavy equipment was dispatched to South Buffalo to help clear streets.
“This is a very, very intense storm – one of those record storms we’re going to remember beyond this date,” said Steven Stepniak, Buffalo’s public works commissioner, during a late-afternoon news conference. “It’s no longer a pushing event. It’s now a hauling event.”
A second lake-effect storm – driven by the same factors as the first: frigid air and a gusty west wind with just the right trajectory – is expected to pelt many of the same areas as were hit on Tuesday.
Tweeted Poloncarz late Tuesday: “Some parts of our county are going to receive a year’s worth of snowfall in three days.”
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