Metropolis

What Made the Buffalo Snowstorm So Deadly

Western New York is used to rough winter conditions, but this was different.

A car drives down a mostly clear road past a basilica with the ground covered in a thick layer of snow.
A car drives past Our Lady of Victory Basilica along South Park Avenue on Tuesday in Lackawanna, New York. John Normile/Getty Images

How did Buffalo become the hardest-hit city in the United States’ bout with extreme weather last week—one that had, at one point, 2 in 3 Americans living under some kind of weather alert? More than 30 people died in Erie County, home to New York’s second-largest city, during a winter storm that Gov. Kathy Hochul called “the blizzard of the century,” and local authorities fear that number will rise. As of Tuesday, a military-enforced driving ban was in place, and bus service was still suspended.

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Obviously, it snowed a lot: The region got almost 4 feet of snow, all told, including 22 inches on Friday, which was nearly double the previous one-day snowfall record.

Also, it was cold: The high temperature was 13 degrees on Christmas Eve. That cold came after a rainy Friday morning, freezing roads under the snow.

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And it was windy: The storm brought wind gusts as high as 71 mph, and more than 100,000 people lost power.

But most of all: It was long. Starting when the storm rolled in at midday on Friday, Buffalo experienced more than 37 straight hours of “blizzard conditions,” meaning high winds, swirling snow, and low visibility. At times it was hard to see across the street.

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That meant that people who got stuck got stuck for a while. The lucky ones got stuck inside, like the band of South Korean tourists who spent Christmas with a couple in the Buffalo suburbs, watching football and cooking up Korean delicacies, after their van slid into a ditch on Friday afternoon. Twenty-five people had a two-night slumber party in a nearby Target, where workers set up inflatable mattresses and even served a makeshift Christmas meal.

But many people weren’t so lucky: Parents of a 1-year-old on a ventilator lost power and had to operate the machine with their hands for 48 hours until good Samaritans came to dig them out. The Erie County sheriff said that more than 400 EMS calls went unanswered, while EMS who did try to respond had to be rescued themselves.

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Most of those who died were found outside, or in their cars, trying to get somewhere—like 26-year-old Abdul Sharifu, who went out to buy milk at midday on Saturday and was found dead that evening. “It came sooner and heavier than we thought it would,” one of the residents of the impromptu Hotel Target told the Buffalo News. “Being Buffalonians, we had thought, ‘Oh, this is just another storm.’ ”

Indeed, one month ago, the region experienced another “lake effect” snowstorm that dropped as much as 6 feet of snow in some places. That storm also prompted dire warnings from officials and a travel ban, though the only deaths were from cardiac arrests during shoveling. That November storm brought the biggest snowfall in years—but it was neither as cold and windy, nor as relentless, as the one that arrived last week.

“This is the worst storm probably in our lifetime and maybe in the history of the city,” Erie County Chief Executive Mark Poloncarz said at a press conference on Monday. At least, so far: Lake-effect snow is becoming more common as climate change keeps Lake Erie warm later into the winter.

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