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Snowstorm claims three lives as officials look toward warmup, possible flooding

The two-day blizzard that ripped through the region left three people dead as its heavy snowfall, high winds and sustained subzero wind chills shut down everything from post offices to schools.

Government and businesses anticipated a gradual return to normal Friday, though many school districts, including Buffalo Public Schools, remain closed because of a wind chill advisory.

Emergency officials, however, were already looking to Monday, when temperatures are expected to climb into the low 50s, creating the potential for a rapid meltdown and ice jam flooding.

The storm's fatalities included Lawrence Bierl, a 69-year-old homeless man known as just "Larry" to many residents in the Village of Williamsville. His body was found in a Main Street bus shelter Thursday morning.

Aside from Bierl, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said one man was found dead with his snowblower running and another man who was shoveling snow also died. They were not identified.

"We are very sad as a community that anyone lost their lives," Poloncarz said.

The homeless man who died in the storm Thursday was called Larry. His full name was Lawrence Bierl.

The storm broke daily snowfall records as two intense bands of snow swept across Lake Erie and pummeled the metro Buffalo and Southtowns regions while exhausted plow drivers tried to keep up. Commercial plowing contractor Don Carpenter said the businesses he plows were losing parking spaces as the snow piled up.

"There’s no room to put it anymore," he said.

By late afternoon those bands dissolved into much thinner, weaker strands, giving the region time to recover.

[Complete coverage of the January 2019 blizzard]

The Erie County state of emergency and travel bans throughout the region were lifted Thursday, though Route 5 from the Skyway down through Hamburg remained closed. Reports continued of vehicles trying to get around road closure barriers and ongoing ticketing by State Police.

What's ahead

The weather is expected to remain fairly cold Friday, with highs reaching into the low teens. Snowfall is not expected to be an issue, but the wind chill advisory remains in place for much of the morning. Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein warned about the ongoing possibility of frostbite and hypothermia.

"There's no reason to be heroes," she said. "Stay inside during extreme cold temperatures. ... It's only one more day, and we can get through it."

Saturday will be the start of the big warmup, with a high of 35 degrees. That will be followed by temperatures more common in early spring on Sunday and Monday.

"Temperatures will average solidly above normal," National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Zaff said.

What to expect the next 36 hours: Bitterly cold overnight; warmup coming

City recovering

Buffalo City Hall, Erie County government and U.S. Postal Service offices in Buffalo were scheduled to reopen Friday.

But not all city services are resuming. City garbage and recycling pickup will not resume until Monday, said Mayor Byron Brown.

The city is also suspending all on-street parking fees at meters and Roam App parking spots until Monday, offering those who normally park on residential streets the opportunity to park free of charge along major city roadways.

"This will enable us to continue to clear our residential streets and side streets," Brown said. "We want to make sure that our streets are fully passable."

Truckers ticked

The ban on tractor-trailers and commercial buses on major state highways like the Thruway remained in place until 9:40 p.m. Thursday, though not everyone heeded it.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo heaped criticism on truckers who violated the ban Thursday morning, calling them a "disgrace," especially after the big trucks contributed to a multivehicle pileup on the I-90 on Tuesday. He threatened to consider harsher penalties in the future for those who violate the directive and went so far as to tweet images showing him confronting a few drivers.

Brian Peele, a trucker from Granite Falls, N.C., arrived ahead of the travel ban on Tuesday but was forced to divert his tractor-trailer off the I-190 on Wednesday. He and other truckers were awakened by a couple at 2:30 a.m. offering them water, Gatorade and Pop-Tarts, though Peele didn't need any. He was reawakened at 6:30 a.m. by a gruff state trooper who diverted him to the McKinley Mall parking lot.

Peele spent most of that time hanging out in the mall's food court since and said he would have been better off if the Thruway had remained open longer Wednesday before the weather got truly bad.

"I think they closed them too early," he said.

Poloncarz, however, described the trucker violations as the biggest uncontrollable issue facing the county outside of the weather itself.

Truckers wait out winter storm travel ban as Cuomo warns of tickets, fines

Coordinated efforts

Despite the fatalities and accidents, many public officials said they believe the advanced public warnings, school closures and extensive communication and coordination among local and state agencies and the National Weather Service resulted in most residents staying out of harm's way and most cars staying off the roads.

"We were able to get our staff prepared on an earlier timeline, even before the story started hitting, we had people at the Emergency Operations Center," Poloncarz said. "We were able to prepare basically starting on Monday."

With more people attuned to getting the latest alerts and news through their electronic devices and social media channels, he said, it was easier for public agencies to spread the word, with the county actively pushing a steady stream of weather, road conditions, health and plowing updates throughout the storm's duration.

He also said that school superintendents were looped into Emergency Operations Center conference calls for the first time, and information was shared with more officials at different levels in each affected municipality.

"We can't assume that certain parties in town governments are talking to each other," he said. "We found that out the hard way."

 

Northtowns dominate latest local snowfall tallies

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•••

4:16 p.m.: Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown Thursday held a news conference at City Hall to provide an update on matters related to Wednesday’s blizzard and storm-related conditions, in general.

“We still have some snow to deal with today, but the bitter cold is the major challenge,” Brown said. “Again, we are directing people to be very careful if you have to be out in the cold.

Other highlights from the news conference:

  • The travel advisory in Buffalo will be lifted, but the state of emergency will remain effect until further notice.
  • Buffalo City Hall will reopen on Friday.
  • There will be no garbage or recycling pickup until Monday, when the regular trash and recycling pickup schedule resumes.
  • Buffalo Public School and Adult Education are closed again Friday. There will be no Saturday activities at Community Schools. Athletic events are canceled as well.
  • The city is suspending all on-street parking fees at meters and Roam App parking spots until Monday. “This will enable us to continue to clear our residential streets and side streets. We want to make sure that our streets are fully passable,” the mayor added.

And, in what has to be the ultimate grand finale for a public works officials, the mayor announced what was already a planned retirement for Public Works Commissioner Steven Stepniak who, after 32 years in city service and 11 as commissioner, ends his career managing a major snow storm.

•••

12:53 p.m.: A homeless man well known in the Williamsville area was found dead Thursday morning in a bus shelter on Main Street in Amherst. Officials believe that his death is weather-related.

The man, known only as "Larry," was found at about 10 a.m. near the Walker Center, in the 5100 block of Main Street, close to the I-290 interchange, according to Amherst police.

•••

11:56 a.m.: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo returned Thursday morning to Buffalo for a second time in two days – this time to admonish truckers ignoring the tractor-trailer and commercial bus bans on major state routes, including the Thruway, the I-190 and the I-290.

“This is a disgrace, for these tractor-trailer drivers to be violating the ban and putting people’s lives in danger,” Cuomo said at a news conference Thursday morning in a Department of Transportation barn in Lancaster.

•••

10:31 a.m.: Another sign of the severity of the winter storm that has gripped the Buffalo metro area since Tuesday: Post offices are closed today.

All Buffalo stations and branches of the U.S. Postal Service and all branches – all of the ones in ZIP codes that start with 142 – are closed, said Karen Mazurkiewicz, a spokeswoman for the postal service.

•••

9:19 a.m.: The blizzard is over, the snow has mostly moved on, but Southtowns residents are still hunkering down.

With driving bans remaining in place this morning in several municipalities south of the city, most streets were eerily empty. Even in the Town of Boston, where the driving ban was lifted in the 7 a.m. hour, very few vehicles had ventured onto roadways this morning.

Throughout much of Hamburg and Boston, roads were as clear of snow as the single-digit temperatures would allow. A thin layer of packed snow remains on most streets, and the frigid conditions have kept ice on even well-plowed highways.

•••

9:04 a.m.: This is one of those days when you really need to listen to your mom: Wear a hat, for crying out loud. And a scarf, gloves and layers. Lots and lots of layers, if you absolutely have to go outside, because it's going to be bitterly, dangerously cold.

Frostbite and hypothermia are both possible during conditions like Buffalo is experiencing. We've got some tips for you, based on information from the American Red Cross, about the cold-related emergencies.

•••

7:38 a.m.: Need to warm up a bit? Try Antarctica. Or Greenland. Even Alaska. Parts of each of those places all expect warmer temperatures today than the 5 degrees that's forecast in Buffalo.

•••

6:26 a.m.: Since 1894, the daily snowfall record of 6 inches stood for Jan. 29 in Buffalo.

And Wednesday's former mark of 11.6 inches was established during President Lyndon Johnson's administration – in 1966.

Both were broken in consecutive days.

•••

6 a.m.: If Don Carpenter — the man behind Monster Snowplowing & Lawncare, which specializes in commercial contracts, serving stores, restaurants and 24-hour businesses in Buffalo and the Northtowns — has a pet peeve, it would be drivers who do not abide by travel advisories.

“Stay at home. Let us get our job done. They issue the travel ban for a reason. People need to stay home. Tractor-trailers need to keep off the Thruway. They get stuck in the smallest amount of snow,” he said.

Wednesday

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.

“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.

[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.

News staff reporters contributed to this story.

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