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NEWCOMERS MAKE PEACE WITH THE COLD REALITY OF A BUFFALO WINTER

It's time for Western New Yorkers to put another notch on their collective winter weather belts. For longtime residents, this season was a cinch, complete with December days when weekend athletes stashed their skis and broke out their golf clubs.

But what about newcomers -- those weather rookies whose idea of Buffalo is based on the grainy images of hardy souls fighting a losing battle during the Blizzard of '77.

Did their expectations come close to the cold reality?

Paul Soloway and his wife Debbie Mahoney, both research scientists at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, admit they thought Buffalo was the blizzard capital of the east.

"I grew up in Boston. Last winter we broke a 140-year-old snowfall record, and I still took a lot of flak from people about moving here."

Since he arrived in August, Soloway said he and his wife have quickly became aficionados of the city and are waiting for a "real winter." The couple's friends are not convinced, though.

"We don't get any guests because they still will not visit us in the cold weather," says Mahoney.

Ominous predictions were forecast for Kentucky native Vicki Glass when she came to Buffalo by way of Nashville a year ago.

"People in the South warned me that I wouldn't survive, especially since they knew I do about half of my work outside," said the WKBW-TV reporter.

"And then my husband told me awful stories about last winter, so I feel like I lucked out this year."

While the transition was easier than she expected, Ms. Glass did encounter a few challenges on her move to the frosty north.

"I don't mind the snow, but the bitter cold really bothers me," she said. "It was painful trying to jog, so I ended up buying a treadmill."

The only thing Sabres president Doug Moss bought for his first winter here was a heavy coat.

"I thought the weather would be quite severe, but it hasn't been a factor at all," said Moss, who hails from the less than balmy New York City area. "It's been great. Buffalo's winter is hockey weather."

Sue Serio -- co-host of "Wake Up" on WIVB-TV who moved to the area last summer -- said she was nervous the first time it snowed.

"I was intimidated by the city's weather reputation," says the Baltimore native. "Before I arrived, I was in a car accident and I turned into a snow weenie. But Buffalo cured me of my driving fear. I have a short commute here and people are prepared for the conditions."

When Ms. Serio told her family she was taking a job in Buffalo, they responded with the usual stereotypes. "My mother called me in June and asked if it was snowing."

Justified or not, that doomsday notion is as real as the ice boom in Lake Erie.

Tom Hallander, president of Landmart Homes in Williamsville and a realtor for 25 years, said the weather "always comes up" when he talks to people relocating to Western New York. He and his staff try to allay their fears with a quick shot of reality.

"They think Buffalo is someplace on a polar cap. We tell them we have winter, we enjoy and prepare for it, and the perception is out of proportion to what it's like," Hollander says. "And we also say that our winter festivals often don't do well because there isn't enough snow."

Not everyone would agree that we made it through a relatively wimpy winter.

Medaille College student Debbie Lomax declares that she hates winter in Buffalo and is still not accustomed to trudging through several feet of snow.

"I'm from the Bronx and everyone said it's freezing up here. Now that I've been in Buffalo a while, I tell my family I spend a lot of time indoors."

Cocooning activity is exactly the opposite of what Tom Niziol, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service, suggests to people facing their first Buffalo cold season.

A veteran of more than thirtysomething winters here, Niziol encourages first-timers to just do it -- ski, skate or walk outdoors.

"Cabin fever makes people a little crazy, so it's good to get involved and take advantage of what the area has to offer."

Niziol says the El Nino pattern may have contributed to the pleasant conditions early in the season, but he doesn't want to give false hope to anyone who might actually believe Buffalo is the Miami of the north.

"If it begins on a mild note, we'll still get winter weather on a delayed basis," says Niziol. For instance, a foot of snow blasted the area in early January and 25 inches fell in February, twice the average for the month, he said.

With the official start of spring last Monday (according to the calendar, at least), Niziol offers no predictions for what to expect next.

"Too early to say, but I can tell new residents one thing: spring comes a little later because Lake Erie is cold for so long."

That's probably no big deal to the newcomers who have successfully weathered their first Buffalo winter. After all, spring's reputation is not nearly as infamous as the season it follows.

By comparison, spring in Buffalo is a day at the beach. Figuratively speaking, of course.

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