Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Today is not only the birthday of my sister (and Dick Cheney!), and the release date of Vista, the next generation of the M$ operating system, but this is also the week of the 30th anniversay of the great Blizzard of '77 (at that time, I lived in Batavia, NY, a little town not far from Buffalo). It was a legendary storm, described thusly by an unknown person on the internet:
Twenty-nine people died in the storm from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1, 1977 -- the first snowstorm to warrant a federal disaster area declaration. Total damage reached $300 million. For 11 days, national news reports showed images of a city blanketed in snow up to the roofs of houses. When the blizzard began, it seemed like just another Friday morning snow flurry. But by 11:35 a.m., lightning flashed and the sky darkened. The wind shifted and began to howl. Soon, people couldn't see across the street. What made the blizzard unique were the sustained winds, gusting up to 69 mph, which picked up the drifts piled high on frozen Lake Erie and dumped them in western New York and southern Ontario. The winds were accompanied by Arctic cold temperatures, making it feel like minus 60 degrees outside. White-out conditions quickly trapped thousands of people at work, in cars and in homes. Some had to stay put for a day, others for the storm's duration. At least nine motorists froze to death in their stranded cars. At the Buffalo Zoo, 8-foot drifts allowed three reindeer to step over their fence and wander around the city. The storm relented four days after it began. Many businesses and schools remained closed for another week.
The storm actually started on Friday, January 28th, but I'll always associate it with my sister's birthday on the 30th, which fell on a Sunday that year, and it was the first time church had ever been canceled because of the weather. School was also canceled for the week following the storm, not only because the roads were impassable, but also because the city couldn't afford to heat the schools -- or at least that's what I remember hearing at the time, and I was comforted by the thought, because that meant that even if the snow let up, we'd still get to stay home as long as it stayed cold. The temperature dropped precipitously right after the storm front moved through and I don't think it got above 0°F until more than a week later. Much of the time, the wind chills were far, far, below zero.

We stayed fairly warm and cozy in our great big barn of a house by closing off many of the rooms and heating only a few (I vaguely recall that citizens were asked to do their best to conserve fuel). We kept a fire going in the living room fireplace pretty much all the time -- it was in front of the fire that I remember having a party for my sister, complete with a birthday cake. I don't know if she had been planning something special that year, but it ended up being a simple affair, with just the family.

The week stretched out with adventure after adventure filling up the time we would have spent in school.

One of my brothers had a paper route and the newspapers had to be delivered, so that week, the route became a family affair. Walking through the neighborhood was treacherous -- we not only had to contend with the numbing cold and giant snowdrifts, but visibility was often close to zero because of the wind and blowing snow. We bundled up in our snow gear, complete with goggles and scarves to cover our faces so that not a patch of skin would be exposed, and went out in pairs. I was teamed up with my baby brother, and we were given a segment of the route to cover. At one point, we had to climb the side of a snowdrift that had grown up in our path. As we were reaching the top, my brother suddenly disappeared from my peripheral vision. I turned to look and found him, still beside me, but he'd dropped about three feet down when he hit a soft spot in the drift and was up to his armpits in the snow. I pulled him out and we continued on.

I also remember having all kinds of fun helping to dig our neighbors out of the snow. One guy found a long broom handle and went down the street, poking the snowdrifts with his stick until he met some resistance, and that was how he found his car (not that it it did him any good, as all non-emergency travel was verboten, but he did manage to get it out of the street so it wouldn't get hit if a snow plow came along).

Through it all, my mother must have been cooking like crazy because I recall all sorts of hot food and drinks were always waiting for us when we returned home from our adventures.

I was lucky. All my memories of such a horrible storm are good ones.

Somewhere in my parents' basement is a bunch of photos from that week, including one that caught the image of a snowdrift that had blown up onto our front porch, blocking the bottom half of the door. When opened from the inside, the door exposed an impressive wall of snow that continued on down the front walk.

I don't have the pictures with me now (others have shared theirs), but I DO have a supercool set of six of these Blizzard '77 glasses. Seriously, I have to wonder how they came to be... Who was their intended market? How many sets were sold? Were they sold, or were they offered as incentives to new subscribers of Buffalo's paper? I don't know. I came into possession of my set several years ago when my mother stumbled upon them as she was cleaning out her attic. She decided that I couldn't live another day without my own set of commemorative disaster glasses. So here I am, with a souvenir of the blizzard that I (and 5 friends) can use to toast the anniversary of the storm (and my sister!).



Adam said...

oh cool. i wish i had ice storm of '93 glasses.

fletch said...

Around these parts the memories are of Superstorm 93. Chattanooga had 15 inches of snow and I believe it struck in early March. I was living on Signal Mountain at the time and the power never went off up there, but other parts of the city had major problems. It was my first exposure to thundersnow. Ah the memories.

alice said...

Yeah, I was here for that storm. We didn't lose our power, but we still left town -- we were planning to spend our spring break in Florida anyway, and things were looking rather bleak here, so we got out.

We left a day later than we had planned and it was a real struggle (it took us five hours just to reach Atlanta!), but from mid-Georgia on we picked up some speed. Between here and Atlanta was apocalyptic. We were traveling along the single lane that was open and the northbound lane wasn't moving at all. People had obviously spent the night out there and some had even built fires on the road. As we passed one rather large clump of vehicles, we saw a girl holding up a sign that said "Call Clinton! Send Help!"

We stopped at the first exit between here and Atlanta that was passable (it was just north of the city), in an attempt to get food, but all the restaurants had run out of food. We had to drive quite a bit further south before we were finally able to find something to eat.

It was a horrible storm and certainly made a mess of things around here, but the scale and scope didn't quite reach the level of what I saw back in '77.

But maybe I'm just turning into one of those crusty old people who walked 12 miles to school, uphill both ways... ;-D

sravana said...

Perfectly horrible story, Alice. Those poor people who froze to death! awful.

For me, it was the Blizzard of '85 - in San Antonio, Texas, no less. We got 13" of snow, and the whole city shut down for a week. It was actually fun!

Before then I never realized that snow made a sound when it fell... silly me! But I'd literally never seen anything like it, at the time.

Weekend Links at 10,000 Monkeys and a Camera said...

[...] • What’s the worst snow storm you can remember? (Mine is the Blizzard of ‘77.) [...]

Keera said...

Well, we had that moment that blew an oil rig into the bridge to town - or would have hadn't the rig hit a sand bank.

I honestly don't know what I'd do in a storm like that. And I'd rather not find out.

And where was I in January 2007 when you first posted this? Never mind. Today, your post is now saved to be studied further as part of my astrological meteorology.

Sravana, I do remember you mentioning snow making a sound when it falls. It doesn't. But flakes will sometimes land on something that helps make a sound, like on a nylon jacket or a canvas awning.