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Buffalo's image sticks like wet snow
Six cities had more snowfall last year, but area here can't shake off wintry reputation

Philadelphia received 78.7 inches of snow last winter.

Baltimore, another city rarely associated with snow, got socked with 77 inches.

And Buffalo, with its nationwide image as one big shaken-up snow globe, received 74.1 inches.

But as the Atlantic Seaboard once again gets hammered with snow this week, we all know where national news organizations and weather reporters will show up with their cameras the next time a big lake-effect snowstorm pounds the region.

They'll all be "near Buffalo," somewhere in the traditional snow belt area in the Southtowns and the Southern Tier.

And our reputation will remain intact.

Let's be honest here.

This remains one of the snowiest regions in the nation, ranking seventh in last year's snowfall among cities with more than 100,000 residents. For the record, Syracuse was first with 106.1 inches and Rochester third with 89.6.

But a snowfall chart showing Philadelphia and Baltimore above Buffalo -- and Washington, D.C. less than an inch behind -- again calls into question Western New York's image as our nation's unofficial snow capital.

Especially with a big Nor'easter again setting its sights on the East Coast this week.

"There is no ducking the fact that Buffalo gets a significant amount of snowfall each winter, but in any given year, the cities along the Eastern Seaboard can have a more severe winter, snow-wise, than Buffalo," National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Niziol said.

But that's not the image.

When North Tonawanda native Andrew Rafferty moved to Washington, D.C., in September 2009, he thought he'd be getting away from the snow he had shoveled all his life.

"One of the things I was most excited about was getting to a little bit of warmer, more stable climate," he said. "What happened was that last winter, we got hit at least twice, two big storms, and it was a really long period last year where Washington had gotten more snow than Buffalo."

Rafferty, 23, production assistant at NBC's "Meet the Press," said Buffalonians are more prepared to deal with the snow on a day-to-day basis. He said the city gets its reputation from the large storms that stick in people's minds.

"It seems like Buffalo is always good for that one huge snowstorm each year, the big one that makes the national news, and then the rest of winter seems pretty normal," he said. "You can count on once a year Buffalo getting the headlines. [The] perception is a lot worse than the reality is."

There's another reason that Buffalo's snowy image is so easily reinforced.

Often when we get hit by a localized lake-effect snowstorm, as opposed to a larger general snowfall, the rest of the nation isn't experiencing much severe winter weather.

"So we are ground zero," Niziol said. "We are the place making the news."

And when Western New York gets battered, as it did in a major lake-effect event early last month, the perception is that the whole area has been paralyzed.

"One of these Nor'easters can ravage an area from Virginia right up to New England," Niziol said. "Compare that to the storm we had in early December. The entire width of that storm was no larger than 12 miles."

So Depew got hit with 42 inches of snow during an event that also battered South Buffalo and other areas. Just miles away, some roads and sidewalks in the Northtowns remained dry.

Lee Coppola, a print and TV journalist in Buffalo for nearly 30 years, said he believes the perception of snowstorms comes from a combination of street reality and media coverage.

Coppola, dean of St. Bonaventure University's Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism & Mass Communication, recalled his days as a reporter for the Associated Press when a snowstorm hit Ski Country, dumping mountains of snow in Jamestown. He said pictures released by the media would always come with a Buffalo dateline. "NBC Nightly News" last month featured footage of snow piled high in Randolph when Buffalo had already done most of its digging out.

"I think it's important that snowstorms be covered by the media," he said. "Obviously, people are inconvenienced. [But] far too often, the reports of incoming storms aren't correct or aren't as severe as they're reported."

The reality is that Buffalo gets "nickel-and-dimed" with more frequent snow than Eastern Seaboard cities, Niziol suggested.

For example, Buffalonians might see snow for 15 days in a winter month, averaging about 2 inches per day.

"A place like Baltimore or Washington or New York City or Boston could receive 30 inches of snow as well, but those snowfalls could come in one or two storms," Niziol said.

Niziol doesn't buy the theory that the Atlantic Seaboard gets paralyzed by lesser amounts of snow that we hardy Western New Yorkers would flick away with a small snow brush.

Those Nor'easters can drop huge amounts of snow, often 2 to 3 feet, buffeted by heavy winds of 30 to 40 mph.

"Those storms are as mean as people make them out to be," Niziol said.

But it's also true that snow removal is more challenging along much of the Eastern Seaboard, where cities often don't invest as heavily in equipment and where residents don't have as much experience battling the snow.

"New York is the media capital of the world, so when Katie Couric can't get to work, it's a national story," Coppola said. "CNN has its capital in Atlanta, so they report what is right outside their doors I'm chortling at watching coverage of snowstorms in places like Charlotte and Atlanta, where no one knows how to drive and people are sliding off the road all over the place."

And when a storm like last month's Nor'easter hits New York, Boston and Philadelphia, not all Buffalonians are laughing with delight. Local transportation officials say that a snowstorm in those cities can delay air traffic in a snowless Buffalo.

"When they close, it has a domino effect on the Buffalo airport because it delays or cancels flights to those cities," said C. Douglas Hartmayer, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. "So even though our runways could be clean and dry, flights are canceled to those cities because [of] the service interruption that they're experiencing."

Hartmayer said that while the majority of regular travelers through Buffalo are prepared to deal with weather delays, the airport has snow-clearing tactics that aren't necessarily seen in other East Coast and mid-Atlantic airports.

"We deal with snow so often here we feel we have a strong base from which to draw resources on," said Thomas Dames, superintendent of airway operations. "We have a diverse fleet of snow equipment that not all airports have."

And we have an image that won't change any time soon.

Niziol likes to tell the story of the different responses he gets when asked where he's from.

If he says Buffalo, the response might be something like, "Oh my God, how do you deal with all that snow?"

But if he says he lives 25 miles from Niagara Falls, the reply could be, "Oh, what a beautiful area. I was up there last summer, and it was wonderful."

e-mail: cspecht@buffnews.com and gwarner@buffnews.com

***

Who's the snowiest?

The U.S. cities* with the highest snow totals last winter.

Syracuse: 106.1 inches

Erie, Pa.: 91.4 inches

Rochester: 89.6 inches

Philadelphia: 78.7 inches

Pittsburgh: 77.4 inches

Baltimore: 77.0 inches

Buffalo: 74.1 inches

Washington, D.C.: 73.2 inches

Grand Rapids, Mich.: 72.2 inches

Des Moines, Iowa: 69.0 inches

*More than 100,000 residents

Source: www.GoldenSnowGlobe.com and National Weather Service

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