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Western New York hunkers down as blizzard batters region

The alarm bells meteorologists rang on Tuesday proved harshly accurate on Wednesday, as a two-band lake-effect storm turned into a full-fledged blizzard and state of emergency across Erie County.

Though the region experienced a blizzard of similar duration in early January of last year, this one covered a larger area, with two lake-effect bands pummeling the region with 1 1/2 feet of snow, and lashing wind gusts of up to 45 mph across Buffalo and the Southtowns.

And if Wednesday wasn't enough for you, there's more to look forward to Thursday — with high winds and single-digit temperature readings keeping the winter storm and wind-chill warnings alive through early evening.

[What to expect in the next 36 hours of WNY weather]

“I know Western New York knows about snow and can handle snow. But this is something different,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said at a briefing in a Department of Transportation barn in Lancaster.

The sustained 30 mph winds led the National Weather Service to declare the storm a blizzard shortly after noon Wednesday.

A State of Emergency was called by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz roughly an hour later, followed by the City of Buffalo.

By midafternoon, travel advisories had turned into bans across more than a dozen communities to the south and east of the city. Many businesses, schools and public agencies heeded the warnings, shutting down in advance of the storm.

The Thruway Authority issued a travel ban meant to keep tractor-trailers off the highway, and flights were canceled or delayed.

“If this were in the UK, it would be a national emergency," said Peter Hutt, a native of Great Britain, after a stranger helped push his car out of the snow in South Buffalo.

[Complete coverage of the January 2019 blizzard]

Behind the widespread impact of the storm were two bands of lake-effect snow coming off Lake Erie: one over metro Buffalo and the other — a bigger, more potent one — over the Southtowns extending from the Pennsylvania line, across the Boston Hills and into the far northwest corner of Wyoming County. The bands converged over Genesee County and led to whiteout blasts of zero visibility.

The Skyway and stretches of the Thruway and Route 219 were shut down. Visibility in many Southtowns areas was so poor the Erie County Department of Public Works temporarily had to pull plow drivers off the roads.

Some of those who tried to remain open or flout travel advisories and warnings found the exercise unprofitable.

Multivehicle accidents closed stretches of the I-190 during rush hour, and 21 vehicles, including tractor-trailers, were involved in a crash on the eastbound side of the Thruway near Batavia, leaving one state trooper with a possible broken leg. The accidents were enough to draw the attention of  Thruway Authority Acting Director Matthew Driscoll at a state budget hearing in Albany.

Driscoll said his and other agencies consulted with trucking groups well in advance of a truck and bus ban that kicked in Tuesday night on portions of the highway.

“If people chose to ignore that … those are the consequences that don’t help anybody,’’ Driscoll said of the mandatory ban not followed by some truckers.

Pasquale’s Italian Restaurant in the Town of Evans was opened as usual at 11 a.m. Wednesday, but the owners told manager Lois Szczesniak to shut down the popular eatery at around 3 p.m.

“Very slow today,” Szczesniak said. “Everything else is shut down. We had like four tables all day.”

Cuomo, who was supposed to visit one of his daughters Wednesday, made a detour to Erie County instead to urge residents to stay safe and offer the state's support.

"We've lost lives in storms like this," Cuomo said at the state Thruway Authority facility along the I-90 off Walden Avenue.

Erie County leaders reported no known loss of life as of early Wednesday evening.

Areas to the north of the City of Buffalo, including Niagara County, were largely spared the worst of the storm's effects.

"It's actually really pretty out," said Chelsea Rosado, manager of the Village Bake Shoppe in Lewiston, where little snow fell and the sun shone most of the day, while a blizzard struck 20 miles to the south.

"It's weird, but it's good," Rosado said. "Everybody kind of freaked out and canceled all the schools and things like that, but it isn't that bad. It's just cold."

Though the blizzard that affected much of Buffalo and points south was expected to be downgraded back to a winter storm in the early overnight hours, National Weather Service meteorologists said there's still plenty of reason to continue to exercise caution today.

Early morning temperatures hovering around zero – or minus 10 in higher elevations to the south – will gradually rise to highs in the mid-single digits, said meteorologist David Thomas.

And while winds are not expected to reach the same fierce speeds as they did Wednesday night, they are expected to be sustained in the 20s through late afternoon. Another 1-2 inches of snow is expected to fall in metro Buffalo, while 3-6 more inches could fall in the Southtowns.

Today's winter storm warning is set to expire at 7 p.m. for Erie, Wyoming, Genesee, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties. The wind chill warnings will also remain in effect through most of the day.

"It will be continuing right through the daytime," Thomas said.

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Earlier storm coverage

11:50 p.m.: A multivehicle crash on the Thruway near Batavia during blizzard conditions Wednesday prompted Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to renew his declaration banning tractor-trailer trucks and commercial buses from expressways during the storm.

“Among those vehicles was at least one tractor-trailer which was banned from the roads and shouldn’t have been there to begin with,” Cuomo declared.

9 p.m.: Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed non-essential state employees in Erie County to stay home Thursday due to the extreme cold, high winds and heavy snow. The governor also announced that states of emergency are in effect for Erie County and all other counties affected by the extreme weather.

8:50 p.m.: The City of Buffalo issued a travel ban until 7 a.m. Thursday, while Genesee County lifted its travel ban. More than a dozen towns and villages banned driving during Wednesday's storm.

7:20 p.m.: The I-190 southbound lanes reopened to traffic at River Road in Tonawanda after a series of multivehicle accidents during rush hour that stretched for about a mile.

4:51 p.m.: Storm? What storm?

Everything seems better when the sun shines, even on a day with the wind chill deep in negative numbers.

Just ask the people of Lewiston.

"It's actually really pretty out," said Chelsea Rosado, manager of the Village Bake Shoppe in Lewiston, where little snow fell and the sun shined most of the day, while a blizzard struck 20 miles to the south.

"It's weird, but it's good," Rosado said. "Everybody kind of freaked out and canceled all the schools and things like that, but it isn't that bad. It's just cold."

4:27 p.m.: What does a Buffalo 'blizzard' mean to you? Depends who you ask.

To Dave Sage, a retired meteorologist, it brings back chilling echoes of the Blizzard of '77. For others, the connotation is less frightening. Sean Kirst looks into how Buffalonians define the word "blizzard," and why.

3:31 p.m.: Twenty-one vehicles, including tractor trailers, were involved in a crash on the eastbound side of the Thruway near Batavia Wednesday afternoon, state troopers said.

The incident left a trooper with a possible broken leg.

The crash was reported at about 2 p.m. near the 382 mile marker, police said.

1:52 p.m.: Cuomo was supposed to visit one of his daughters Wednesday.

"To get on their schedule is very difficult," he said with a smile during a news conference in Cheektowaga. "I had managed to get on the schedule of one of my daughters today, but ... I called her to say I was going to cancel because I was coming here."

She said to her father, "You really take these storms seriously."

He agreed and said he thought about that on his way from Albany to Western New York.

"We've lost lives in storms like this," Cuomo said at the New York State Thruway Authority facility along the I-90 off Walden Avenue. "So when I say it's nothing to be trifled with ... I want to make sure we are doing everything we can because they are dangerous."

1:50 p.m.: Metro Rail continues to function normally during the storm, according to Helen Tederous, spokeswoman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

It’s a different story at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, however, where the majority of flights arriving and departing have been canceled or delayed.

“The runways are clear, but visibility is an issue,” she said.

1:44 p.m.: The blizzard blasting Buffalo and the Southtowns has prompted the Erie County Public Works Department to pull its plows from the roads in and around Aurora and West Falls, officials said.

"Aurora District has zero visibility on Cole, Omphalius, Lower East Hill, Center, Vermont Hill, Centerline, Holland-Glenwood, Lewis, Partridge, Phillips, Savage Road, Routes B, D, S, R, & E all have zero visibility. For driver safety we are pulling trucks from those routes," they tweeted.

1:43 p.m.: "Most of you already know forecasting lake-effect snow caused my hair to thin," Don Paul writes. "Hey, now that I mention it, how come I was the only Buffalo weathercaster with a receding hairline? Safe to say, there are few if any safe calls with lake effect, particularly for placement, motion and intensity."

1:43 p.m.: Modern Disposal Services has rescheduled some residential trash and recycling collection until this weekend and next week.

The company did not send out those crews Wednesday in Erie, Niagara and Orleans counties during the brutal lake-effect storm.

1:34 p.m.: What makes a blizzard a blizzard? There are three key criteria a storm has to meet.

1:22 p.m.: Buffalo police have responded to more than 60 accidents since 5 p.m. Tuesday, but only five resulted in injuries. Mayor Byron W. Brown said Wednesday that while a travel advisory is in effect, state and city officials will decide later whether to impose a driving ban.

There also has been no delay in police services, Brown and other city officials said during a midday City Hall press conference to address the storm.

11:37 a.m.: This lake-effect storm is leading to some unusual closures: Paula's Donuts, Anderson's Frozen Custard, the Buffalo Zoo ... and more.

11:35 a.m.: If you're headed north out of downtown for your afternoon commute today, you should be OK. But if you're southbound, you're in for a "miserable" commute, forecasters said Wednesday morning.

A lake-effect snow band that's dropping snow at a rate of 1 to 2 inches per hour parked itself over the Southtowns and up to the edge of the City of Buffalo. Erie County public works officials were reporting visibility of less than 50 feet in Orchard Park midmorning.

That band is expected to stay put in that area through the afternoon and into the early evening, said Kirk Apffel, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Buffalo.

11:30 a.m.: The lake-effect snow band is making its way south.

Erie County Public Works officials reported heavy lake-effect snow in Orchard Park this morning with visibility less than 50 feet. Motorists reported that conditions on roadways in Hamburg were rapidly deteriorating.

Snow was falling at a rate of one to two inches per hour this morning from the southern edge of Buffalo into the Southtowns, said Apffel, the weather service meteorologist.

11:12 a.m.: Do not adjust your snowfall chart. These standings just appear upside-down. This lake-effect storm has an unlikely leader in snowfall totals.

10 a.m.: Erie County officials stressed caution to Western New Yorkers during their first briefing Wednesday. "To underestimate this would be a mistake," said Greg Butcher, Erie County Deputy Commissioner for Homeland Security and Preparedness.

9:30 a.m.:  January 2019 is within striking distance of dethroning one of the city's most historic weather months on record – January 1977. That January, which featured the storied Blizzard of '77, ended with 68.3 inches of snow. It was also the city's third snowiest month on record.

8:31 a.m.: Lake-effect snow hit the western and northern part of Buffalo up into Amherst and across to Clarence overnight and into the morning. Areas farther north got a couple of inches and the Southtowns, which usually take the brunt of the snow in these kinds of winter storms, were largely unscathed. Here's what Buffalo News staffers around Buffalo Niagara woke up to.

8:04 a.m.: The morning commute got messy as 3 inches of snow per hour fell on metro Buffalo. Travel advisories – meaning no unnecessary travel – are in effect for Northern Erie, Niagara, Orleans, and Genesee counties, as well as Buffalo, Amherst and Niagara Falls. Officials were keeping an eye on the weather to determine whether to issue any travel bans.

7:25 a.m.: Many flights in and out of Buffalo Niagara International Airport have been canceled or are delayed today.

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