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Storm to pound area with lake-effect snow, high winds, extreme cold Wednesday

Brutal wind chill temperatures combined with a strong lake-effect snow band will pound Buffalo and the Northtowns Wednesday before slowly heading to southern Erie County.

The storm, which dumped half a foot of snow in Buffalo before 2 p.m. Tuesday, will continue to assault the area with winds gusting 35 to 40 mph.

The high winds and low temperatures are producing dangerous wind chills, prompting most schools in Erie and Niagara counties to announce on Tuesday they would be closed the following two days.

Government offices in Erie County and Buffalo are closed Wednesday, as are all state, county, town and city courts. Dozens of other events and services are canceled Wednesday as well, from Meals on Wheels to recreation and senior programs.

With the possibility for 18 to 24 inches in total falling the Buffalo Niagara region, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz urged caution.

And depending on where it falls, snow from this storm could make this January one of Buffalo's snowiest.

"It will be in the top 10, maybe top five," said Jim Mitchell, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

“We’re not unaccustomed to this but, certainly, with the other issues we’ll be dealing with, add to a triple whammy, so to speak, between the snow, the wind and the extreme cold,” Poloncarz said. “You should anticipate that the weather will be very bad, such that you will have zero visibility."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo banned tractor-trailers and commercial buses from several state routes, including the Thruway from Exit 46 to the Pennsylvania line, I-190, I-290, Route 400, Route 219 from Peters Road to the Thruway and Route 5 from NY-179 to I-190. The bans will last the duration of the storm, he said.

Route 5 was closed to traffic from Ridge Road to Delaware Avenue at around 9 p.m. Tuesday until further notice due to blowing snow and whiteout conditions.

The band of snow, which broke up a bit Tuesday afternoon, reorganized by 9 p.m.

"From there, it's game on," Mitchell said, adding that Buffalo and parts north would be a target at least until Wednesday evening.

Because the wind is so strong, it will prevent the snow band from becoming a narrow one. That also could slightly reduce the intensity of the snow fall, he said.

"Overall, the winds are going to make up for that," Mitchell said.

The band will remain strong as it moves over the Southtowns Wednesday evening, where it will stay overnight, he said.

"The snowfall itself will pale in comparison to the wind chill and the wind," Mitchell said. "It's the overall scenario."

The temperature Wednesday will be about 2, and about 6 on Thursday. But the strong winds will produce wind chills as low as 25 below zero.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said there are three conditions to worry about: frostbite, hypothermia and developing a heart attack or cardiac event.

“With a frostbite, that is irreversible skin damage. We usually see it in areas that are most vulnerable, which are exposed areas and areas of poor circulation. That can include the nose and the ears, the cheeks, the chin, the fingers and the toes,” Burstein said. “We want to make sure those areas are adequately covered."

To help the homeless escape the brutal temperatures in Buffalo, Harbor House, 241 Genesee St., a Code Blue Warming Center, is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Harbor House, St. Luke’s, 325 Walden Ave., and Holy Cross church hall, 412 Niagara St., also will be open as warming shelters from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

A flash food watch is in effect through Wednesday evening for low-lying areas on the Upper Niagara River as a result of strong winds and an ice jam between the Power Authority intake and Cayuga Island.

"Areas susceptible to flooding from rising water on the Upper Niagara River include the Grand Island shoreline, Cayuga Island in Niagara Falls, and the river shoreline between North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls," the weather service reported.

Falls Mayor Paul Dyster said residents in potential flood areas "will be personally contacted by public safety officers going door to door should the need for an evacuation arise."

“Water levels are being closely monitored and will continue to be throughout the week. Although our most recent data shows the Niagara River at a level below damage elevation, we ask that Cayuga Island residents remain vigilant and assist our public safety officers as they work to keep our community safe,” Dyster said in a statement.

What to expect the next 36 hours: Button up in Buffalo and northtowns

By early Tuesday afternoon, every school district in Erie County, including Buffalo schools, had announced it would close Wednesday and Thursday. Many districts in Niagara County followed.

More than 20 superintendents took part in a conference call Tuesday morning with the National Weather Service and Poloncarz, where the weather hazards were outlined, according to Frontier Central Superintendent Richard Hughes.

"For this storm, the cold, the snow, it’s as certain as you can get with a weather forecast," Hughes said.

He called off school shortly after noon.

"I think the cold really has a lot of people scared," he said.

The University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State canceled all classes and activities for Wednesday. Niagara University canceled Wednesday classes, but said Tuesday that the basketball game in the Gallagher Center against Canisius College will be held as scheduled Wednesday night. Canisius also will be closed Wednesday.

Erie Community College announced that all three of its campuses would be closed Wednesday and Thursday, and the Buffalo campus of Medaille College also will be closed Wednesday.

Authorities urged no unnecessary travel, saying that motorists who get stuck will be putting their lives at risk because of the extreme cold temperatures anticipated.

“If you’re stuck in a snow bank during blinding snow as the winds pick up and in bitter cold, this is life-threatening conditions,” said Poloncarz.

He said anyone who gets stuck should call 911 and stay in their car.

“We know how to handle this. We can get through this, and if we act appropriately, we will all get through this safely,” Poloncarz said.

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