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Schools closed, National Guard called - for mere inches of snow?

The schools were closed. The entire length of the Thruway – including I-190 – was shut down to tractor-trailers. The National Guard was called in. Even Anderson's Frozen Custard closed all of its Erie County locations.

As of 1 p.m. Tuesday, only 6 1/2 inches of snow had fallen on Buffalo.

What's happened to us?

"Where's the storm? We ain't got none," barked Tom Best Sr., highway superintendent for the Town of Hamburg, who has weathered his share of real snowstorms over the years. "I see more snow in May than we're getting now."

It was a sentiment shared by many Tuesday as Buffalo freaked out over a run-of-the-mill snowstorm.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz took to Twitter and the airwaves to mock the overreaction to the snowfall.

"Let's show some backbone, folks," a bewildered Poloncarz tweeted early Tuesday.

Forecasters all along had said the Nor'easter bringing blizzard-like conditions to New York City would have some affect on the Buffalo area, but it wouldn't be that bad – about a foot to a foot-and-a-half over a period of about 48 hours.

"This isn't going to be a crippling snow, by any measure, for us," Jeff Wood, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Buffalo, told The Buffalo News Monday.

Unlike a lake-effect storm that can dump 4 or 5 inches of snow per hour, this winter storm was expected to be much calmer. Overnight Monday, the Buffalo area was expected to get about 2 inches of now. Throughout the day, somewhere around 5 to 8 inches more. Then another few inches overnight.

"I'm pretty sure our snowplow drivers here are used to dealing with much more intense scenarios," Wood said Monday.

The forecast was spot on.

But Monday night, as the forecast grew more dire for downstate, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had already declared a state of emergency statewide that set in motion a cascade of closings.

Albany has declared a state of emergency before, Poloncarz said. "But we've never reacted like this," he said. He pointed out that normally, the declaration simply gives the governor more power to move plows and heavy equipment to areas that need them.

Monday night, both the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State announced they'd be closed Tuesday. Then Buffalo area school districts followed one by one, well before the usual 5 a.m. snow day pronouncements.

The state's reaction to the snowfall in Buffalo seemed like overkill to many.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was dispatched to a command center in Buffalo to monitor the Thruway.

The roads were slippery, and a handful of accidents were reported on roadways, but with just a couple of inches of snow overnight, it was about what any seasoned Buffalo driver would expect of a winter morning commute.

And two National Guard units – the 105th in Buffalo and the 222nd out of Rochester – were deployed to Buffalo.

Tuesday morning, Cuomo said, "... the storm in the New York City area is not as bad as anticipated. Problem is, it is worse than anticipated in other areas of the state. Superstorm Sandy was almost the same thing – Irene the same thing, forecasted to hit New York City, it didn’t hit New York City but it devastated upstate New York. That’s the same type of situation we’re looking at now."

The governor noted, "We expect blizzard-like conditions up to 30 inches of snow" in the hardest hit areas, the Southern Tier, Binghamton, the I-88 Corridor up to Albany, and Central New York.

Erie County reached out to Broome and Dutchess counties, where the storm was centered, to offer assistance, Poloncarz said. But as far as Erie County Hall is concerned, it was a normal Tuesday, Poloncarz said. Buffalo City Hall was open, too.

"If we were Charlotte or Atlanta, I'd expect the community to be shut down," Poloncarz said. "But we're not. We're Buffalonians. We're proud of our heritage. … And here people are shutting down with 3 inches of snow. That's ridiculous in my eye."

To be fair, Tuesday's forecasted snowfall may surpass the record of 6.5 inches for March 14 in Buffalo, set in 1998. Buffalo is expected to get a storm total of 12 to 18 inches of snow by Wednesday night. And some outlying areas, in eastern Orleans County into Monroe County, could see up to 20 to 24 inches of snow.

What to expect in the next 36 hours: some snow, a little wind

Poloncarz  questioned the school districts' decision to close. He said some schools officials admitted privately that the storm was an opportunity to use up a snow day.

But some school superintendents were upset that Poloncarz blamed them for closing school. After the governor declared a state of emergency, they said, they felt they had no choice.

West Seneca Superintendent Mark Crawford said school officials faced a dilemma in the face of the state of emergency declaration. He said his concern was not for Tuesday morning, but for what the weather and roads would be like at dismissal time.

"I remind you what happened to us back in January," he said, "when the forecast was 4 to 5 inches, and we got 28 inches."

The cellphones were buzzing from superintendent to superintendent Monday night, as they compared notes and decided how and when to close. Many looked to the state Education Department.

One school leader said State Ed put out guidance at about 8 p.m. saying, in effect, that if a district remained open during a state of emergency it would have significant liability if something happened.

Most had announced their closings by 10 p.m. At 10:21 p.m. Monday, more guidance came from State Ed that districts should follow "normal procedures" in deciding to close school, but "the safety of students and staff should always be of paramount concern."

Frontier Superintendent Bret Apthorpe said he did not have any problem closing school, particularly after some students were stuck in schools after several feet of snow fell one afternoon during a lake-effect storm in January, and schools were closed for several days during the November 2014 snow storm.

"We had several unprecedented snow events that make us cautious," Apthorpe said. "We're going to err on the side of caution."

And yet, he acknowledged: "If we close school every time a couple inches of snow falls, we'd never have school."

What about Wednesday?

"That's a good question," West Seneca's Crawford said, adding it depends on the weather and the state of emergency.

Along with schools shutting down, several food trucks decided to skip lunch Tuesday.

Peter Cimino of Lloyd Taco said once the schools and universities announced they'd be closed, Lloyd decided they would, too. "We generally use schools closings as a rule of thumb for whether or not to go out," he said.

"The world isn't ending," he said. "We're still serving tacos at the Factory," Lloyd's restaurant on Hertel Avenue.

The Flaming Fish food truck also decided to suspend lunch service because of the weather.

And Anderson's Frozen Custard announced all of its Erie County stores would be closed because of the weather, though its Lockport store would be open.

"I wanted my half-price cones," a Facebook commenter wrote, adding a sad face emoji. She was referring to Anderson's famous gimmick of selling ice cream for half-price on days when it's snowing.

Like many Southtowns highway officials who have weathered far worse weather, Best laughed at the hype over the storm.

"You media are jumping the gun again," he said.

To be sure, his crews were out Monday night salting the roads and all the plows were out Tuesday clearing snow from roads. After a mild winter, there's plenty of salt left for this storm.

"If they're afraid of this, they don't belong in Buffalo," Best said.

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