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What was the major regional natural history event of the 20th century? No contest.

Lake Erie froze over by Dec. 14, 1976, an early record. This normally puts an end to the lake-effect snowstorms created by winds picking up moisture from the lake surface, converting it to snow and dumping it when those winds reach shore. But that winter, something different happened.

It began to snow just after Christmas, and a few inches accumulated almost every day through the next month. By late January, snow depth in Buffalo was 30 to 35 inches, and street plowing was already falling behind; 33 of the city's 79 plows were in for repairs. More ominous, snow depth on the 10,000 square miles of Lake Erie surface was also almost 3 feet.

Although the National Weather Service had posted blizzard warnings, that fateful Friday, Jan. 28, 1977, started out quite pleasant. There was little wind, and it wasn't too cold for late January. But suddenly, just before noon, the infamous Blizzard of '77 hit.

The temperature quickly plummeted to near zero, and the winds arrived with gusts peaking at more than 70 mph. This produced a wind chill that dropped almost off the chart to 60 below. Only about 7 inches of new snow fell over the next several days, but Western New York and nearby Canada were inundated with those tons of snow blown in off Lake Erie.

As one consequence, visibility remained at zero for the first 25 hours of the storm. Drivers found themselves being buried, and many, surrounded by the whiteout, were forced to stay in their cars. Some of those contributed to the death toll of 29, dying of carbon monoxide poisoning or exposure. (In another episode, carbon monoxide from a snow blower started in an enclosed garage killed not only the operator, but also his daughter in a nearby bedroom.) Hearing of people marooned in their cars, police struggled over drifts to bang on car roofs. They were relieved to receive no answer, because they had no way of digging anyone out.

Ordinary snow would not have been so bad. During this same period, the east end of Lake Ontario received almost 6 feet, but theirs didn't pack the way it did in Buffalo. Here, the wind was so strong that it broke up snow crystals and compressed them into drifts that were cementlike in quality. At the same time, buildings acted like snow fences, causing the drifts to accumulate in some places to 30 feet, enough to bury a house.

The problem became more than the usual too few plows; now it was plows that could not penetrate the drifts. Some broke down, were quickly buried and contributed to the difficulty of opening roads. The state's National Guard and Department of Transportation, the Army Corps of Engineers, nearby towns and commercial firms had to bring in earth-moving equipment to handle the accumulation.

Seven Western New York counties were designated part of a major national disaster area, and soldiers were dispatched from Fort Bragg in North Carolina to assist in the cleanup. It lasted well into February.

Although there was some looting and theft during the storm, it was mostly an episode that brought the community together.

Stores and restaurants and hotels provided food and places to stay, often free. Agencies such as the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, as well as city and county departments, worked continuously through the emergency to provide services. Individual people helped neighbors and strangers.

It was without a doubt our storm of the century.

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