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Blizzard That Swallowed Buffalo Struck 10 Years Ago

January 26, 1987 GMT

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) _ A blizzard with ferocious winds that buried western New York in 25-foot snow drifts began 10 years ago Wednesday, etching Buffalo’s reputation for horrid winters into America’s memory.

″This city,″ Mayor Stanley Makowski said at the time, ″is fighting for its life.″

As others remember where they were when they first learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, western New Yorkers recall where they were when they first realized Friday, Jan. 28, 1977, was not an ordinary day.

″It was the first experience of that type. Nationally, there had never been a disaster declared for snow,″ said Henry Vitale, chief of emergency management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. ″It was the first time, to my thinking, that winter here became life threatening.″

Twenty-nine people died in the four-day siege, 12 of them frozen in stranded cars.

The storm cost western New York $297.8 million, area chambers of commerce estimated.

″It was one of those severe storms that will happen only once in two lifetimes,″ said Lou Douglas, a veteran newsman on WBEN radio, which canceled regular programming and broadcast names of people unable to get home, along with news and weather.

Ironically, just 12.3 inches of fresh snow fell from Friday through Monday. It was the 37 inches of powder snow blowing off frozen Lake Erie that caused massive problems.

Robert Thompson, then a 68-year-old retiree, lived where he does today, a few miles south of Buffalo in Depew. He and his wife watched helplessly for four days as snow, blown across a park behind their ranch house, crept ever higher.

″The house was completely buried. They had to dig down to get us out. It was just like an igloo,″ Thompson recalled. ″If it had gotten any higher, it would have plugged the chimney and we would have suffocated.″

The blizzard struck in an already harsh winter. Sixty-one inches of snow fell in December, followed by 68.3 inches in January, both monthly records.

When Jan. 28th dawned, Buffalo had already endured 37 straight days of below-freezing temperatures and 43 consecutive days with at least a trace of snow. City streets were so snow-clogged the National Guard was called out.

When snow began at 5 a.m., the forecast was ominous, but not unusual: ″Near blizzard conditions at times.″

By the time the cold front officially passed over the city at 11:35 a.m., visibility was zero and would stay that way for four days. Temperatures dropped from 26 at 5 a.m. to zero in four hours, producing wind chill readings below minus 60.

The major source of damage was the lake, whose eastern shore is the city’s western edge. After four days of powerful southwest winds - with daily peak gusts ranging from 46 to 69 in Buffalo - much of the loose snow that was once in the eastern end of the 9,000-square-mile lake was dumped on the land, producing mind-boggling drifts.

At General Motor Corp.’s Harrison Radiator Division plant in Lockport, 20 miles north of Buffalo, 3,000 workers were stranded. In downtown Buffalo, winds knocked 190-pound Patrolman Paul Sullivan to the ground four times as he tried to clear a clogged intersection of vehicles. Three deer escaped from their Buffalo Zoo pen by climbing drifts.

At Bell Aerospace Textron’s plant in the town of Wheatfield - beside the Niagara Falls Airport where the storm’s top gust of 75 mph was recorded - 1,700 employees just kept working.

The Buffalo Courier-Express was unable to publish for the first time since 1834.

People took shelter anywhere they could. About 250 slept in Memorial Auditorium. Fire halls, churches, hospitals, college dormitories, department stores, nursing and private homes took in thousands of strangers.

Paramedics managed to take Dr. Daniel Marieniello to the home of Cynthia Toys, where he delivered her son, Brennan.

After the four-day storm, the cleanup was scary. And Buffalo’s woes were seen on network TV news broadcasts for 11 straight nights.

″I started receiving calls from people I hadn’t seen in years asking if I was still alive,″ said broadcaster Douglas. ″I think in the rest of the nation and the world a beleaguering of the city had grown to almost mythic proportions. I don’t think the city has yet recovered.″

There was an eerie, surrealistic feeling about walking among downtown buildings, seeing no other movement and hearing only the muffled sounds of military helicopters overhead ferrying supplies or searching for stranded vehicles.

There was minor looting and some reports of price gauging on staples.

The federal government spent $10 million to hire 143 private contractors to clear the region’s roads, Vitale said. That prompted the government to establish new rules providing reimbursement for such work.

Eventually, President Carter declared nine counties a federal disaster area. Air Force C5-A transports ferried in spare parts, drivers and truck- mounted snow blowers. More than 300 Army Engineers from Fort Bragg, N.C., were brought in to assist.

Carter sent his son Chip to inspect the damage. Gov. Hugh Carey toured the area, and wrote Carter that half the region’s workers, 209,000 in all, could not get to their jobs for more than a week.

The storm had another effect, officials reported - a regional baby boom the following October.