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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: What does a Buffalo 'blizzard' mean to you? Depends who you ask.

For Zack Bruce, Wednesday offered a 21st century definition of a word of iconic power in Buffalo.

He climbed out of bed early, intent on making it to Hamburg in time for a doctor’s appointment. A winter snowstorm was sweeping across the area, moving from point to point with fierce and blinding intensity. Bruce was so focused on catching his bus and getting on his way that he missed a text message from the doctor, postponing because of the weather.

Bruce, 30, got that news firsthand, at the office, from a receptionist. He knew the doctor had tried to contact him, and there was no point in getting frustrated. So he headed outside to wait for a bus and a ride home, and quickly realized the weather had only intensified.

[Complete coverage of the January 2019 blizzard]

The temperatures already seemed painfully cold, but a bitter wind had kicked in and was throwing powdered snow around like clouds of sugar. Bruce, at the bus stop, listened on ear buds to his beloved Taking Back Sunday and did his best to think of anything except the snow.

“I couldn’t see 5 feet in front of my own face,” Bruce said. “I was afraid someone would hit me when I crossed Abbott Road.”

He was not surprised to learn the storm had officially been classified as a blizzard by the National Weather Service.

Even now, that designation carries a certain historic weight in this city. Dave Sage, a retired weather service meteorologist, was on duty 42 years ago, during the Blizzard of ’77. The frightening and lethal intensity of that storm — it would be linked to 29 deaths in Western New York — brought a level of civic foreboding to the word that lingered for a long time.

Josh Rogers walks with his shovel down South Park in Buffalo Wednesday, January 30, 2019. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

For years, Sage said, any use of the word "blizzard" short of an actual full-blown storm — such as using the more limited connotation of "blizzard-like conditions" — caused such a spasm of civic alarm and worry that the weather service rarely brought it up unless it met the actual criteria. That would include three consecutive hours of frequent gusts of at least 35 mph, he said, and three straight hours where visibility is hindered at a quarter-mile or less, due to blowing snow.

Wednesday morning, with those factors in place, meteorologists at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport ruled this storm is indeed a blizzard, only the sixth in greater Buffalo since the one of 1977. They issued a warning about those conditions that extended until 1 a.m. Thursday.

Even today, said Heather Kenyon, a meteorologist, a blizzard warning “is a rare product.”

Still, the truth is that the great Blizzard of '77 was long enough ago that use of the word — at least for younger generations — does not quite carry the dire weight it once invoked throughout this region. Peter Hutt, for instance, who helps run the shipping department at Parker’s Great British Institution in South Buffalo, a food manufacturer, said the word “blizzard” conjures images of Alaska for him before it triggers visions of ferocious Lake Erie storms.

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Hutt, a native of the United Kingdom, moved here five years ago after he married his wife, Leanne Carlson. The couple was living in East Aurora when the “Snowvember” storm of 2014 dropped more than 7 feet of snow on their doorstep.

To Hutt, that epic November blast remains the most powerful symbol of winter in Western New York. In a way, so is what happened to him early Wednesday, when he drove to Parker’s to turn on the boiler and warm up the place. He pulled in without realizing how much snow had piled up in the parking lot. When Hutt tried to drive out, he said that he “beached it,” describing the plight of his car.

The vehicle was stuck the parking lot, and Hutt was alone. He hurried inside to get a shovel, but by the time he returned a stranger in a pickup had driven past, turned around, taken another look and was jumping out to give Hutt a hand.

The man, who said he did not need to have his name in the paper, said stopping to give assistance is second-nature. “I’m from South Buffalo," he said, "and that’s a neighborhood wanting to help out.”

The man pushed. Hutt hit the gas pedal. The car engine roared for a moment in the deep blanket of snow, before the vehicle burst free in one of those greatest-feeling-in-the-world instants.

“In the UK,” Hutt said with admiration, “people would drive past and just let me carry on.”

The word “blizzard” also has pragmatic meaning to Josh Rogers, 40, born more than a year after the storm of 1977. For years, he has pulled out his shovel and used it to make some extra money when a snowstorm blows in. He walked Wednesday along South Park Avenue, shovel pressed against his shoulder, en route to clear off a friend’s sidewalk and driveway.

Do that 15 times or more in a day, Rogers said, and you can go home with a couple of hundred bucks.

By Wednesday afternoon, he said, he needed to take a break. The winds were accelerating, and the snow drifted around in gusting clouds that resembled fog. Try to shovel in those conditions, Rogers said, and it makes no sense: You end up with 2 feet of snow blowing in to replace the foot you manage to move.

When it reaches that point, he figures it is a blizzard.

Ashley Frey, who was shoveling on Sheffield Avenue after wrapping a scarf she had crocheted herself around her face, said her three children were itching to get outside and start building snow forts in the drifts. But the cold was too much for her to take that risk.

"When I think of a blizzard," she said, "I think about staying home to be warm and not leaving until it's over."

Michelle Gress was more worried about defying the storm than defining what it was. She works as a cashier at Tops in South Buffalo, and she had no choice: She had to walk there Wednesday to buy such staples as bread, milk and groceries, including some cans of Chef Boyardee. Then she fought her way home in the teeth of the wind, bringing lunch for her two sons, both off from school.

“I hate this weather,” Gress said, who added in almost the same breath just how much she loves Buffalo. What keeps her here, she said, is the city's "atmosphere," which means she might not like the snow, but she likes the way neighbors respond.

A good-hearted stranger pushes out the car of Peter Hutt on South Park in Buffalo Wednesday. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Jennifer Lang, not far away, was living out just what that means.

She was too little at the time to remember much of the Blizzard of ’77, but Lang and two of her siblings were all working as paper carriers for The Buffalo News when another blizzard slammed into the area, in 1985.

Lang recalled how her dad, a steelworker at Bethlehem Steel, packed them all into his car, then drove them, house by house, as they delivered papers. It was a double message: In hard times, you still need to show up and do your job, but a community is built by those who come together, willing to help.

She paused to tell that story Wednesday as she shoveled snow on Abbott Road that pushed up to her knees. Lang said that she and her brother Paul both were shoveling to help out their 80-year-old mother, but it turned out — at the moment when she paused to speak — that Lang was not even shoveling at her mother's house.

Instead, she had moved on to clear deep snow from a neighbor’s walk. Once she cleaned it off, she said, children walking past would have a straight and easy shot to the corner, rather than being forced to walk in the street.

“It just makes it so much easier for people,” Lang said of why she did not just stop at her own place, and in that way she defined the one best way to find our way through another blizzard, in Buffalo.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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