This is what we’re famous for isn’t it? This is why people know us? If “Buffalo” were ever a word on $20,000 Pyramid, the first description would be in reference to snow I’m sure. There is no doubt about that any longer after this. But after the bizarrely snowless winter of 2011-2012 and more recently the Polar Vortex of 2013-2014 that made a harsh winter more of a mutual punch line for the whole upper East corner of the US, we started to wonder if Buffalo was, maybe for lack of a better word, due?
Due for the type of weather event WNY’ers will never stop referencing. Would we wake up to ripped apart trees and decimated electrical output like October of 2006? Would we get the 86-inch White Christmas of 2001 or the rush hour blitz of 2000 where everyone had to stay at school or work overnight? Would the next winter spectacular be something we’d be able to survive by grabbing a six-pack and watching a good football game like we did in 1985? Perhaps there was more in store for the 716. Perhaps someday we would see something that gets its own board game like the infamous ’77 did. Yes someday even ’77’s reign of fame and notoriety will pass.
Perhaps there would be a storm that this generation will never stop repeating stories about. But were we prepared to imagine a lake effect masterpiece that was ready to slice its way through the record books? Did we have any idea what a stab ‘77’s dominance would take this November? Was Buffalo ready to have such a cutoff between everything above downtown and all that lies below it? Like Norman Bates pulling the shower curtain on Marion Crane, Western New York was spontaneously attacked. By a Knife.
The stab wound on the green screen map of Erie County was rather surgical. Certain more southern zip codes would fall victim to invasions. Cases of actual breaking and entering of snow into homes through windows, doors, and roofs. Other zip codes, in the North, the center, and to the East were luckier. Living just below downtown in storied South Buffalo, I was not one of those lucky in that way. Though eventually I probably will be able to chalk this up as luck. Luck that now I have an answer to all of my parents tales of ’77. It became clear I would now have tales of my own to repeat until my own earthly end. Tales, of surviving the knife.
That Tuesday behaved like a Buffalo November most always does. I cursed the briskness but fully took for granted the waning ability to open my front door, walk effortlessly from said door to the sidewalk, and simply the ability to see my car parked directly in front of my house. It was around 5pm when the first flakes manifested their way to ground. And it only took an hour for my whole sight line of outside to be completely transformed.
My overnight airport job called to ask if I could come in early. I told them not only could I not even see my car right now, but even if I could the streets were already so deep here there was no possibility any vehicle without a plow was getting through. I knew it would be a while before a plow would make it down the urban side streets. But how long exactly?
I couldn’t get to work that night. Neither could anybody who lives here. Even the state DOT worker, who drives a plow lived a paradox that week. He couldn’t get to work to plow the snow because the snow had not been plowed yet. Most hoped it would be a one-day type of thing. That as soon as we woke up it would just be another close call you talk about that next day after just one reasonably delayed November commute to work. But that was nothing like this day.
Buffalonians know snow. Buffalonians have seen the damage it can do, the volume it can take, and the impressions it can leave but there was no one south of downtown who could say they had seen anything like this. There was no way I ever thought I’d be able to jump from my second story terrace down to my driveway completely unharmed. But I did.
We’ve seen the Weather Channel shout us out before. In fact, of any national channel it’s probably the number one place in which we will ever garner the most attention. Thanks to the knife, the Weather Channel temporarily became all Buffalo, all the time. In this age of photo sharing social media there was never a shortage of evidence and perspective. This will always indeed be what we’re famous for.
I knew I wasn’t alone in hoping that by the time this first day and night ended that there would be progress in Buffalo’s southern streets. But when plow drivers are among those most snowed in, that dream was unattainable. It was fun at first. Exciting initially. There were reports of deaths but not enough to really cause a wide spread threat to set in. This storm of national notoriety was at this point anything but scary. Yet it snowed more that night. The plows did the best they could on short staff while they awaited reinforcements from neighboring counties.
Waking up to low food supplies and nearly no opened or stocked stores that following morning was the turning point. That was the moment where the emotion of fear nestled itself homely in the back of our collective snowbound minds.
I’m not just talking about cabin fever. There was a much deeper reason so many people ventured out that day. A large herd trudged up and down Abbott road in search of food like something you’d only see on the Discovery Channel. I called the phone number of every convenient store in the 14220 zip code. Two were open out of the twelve. Both had shelves completely bare of everything but cans of beer, soda pop, and potato chips. Even still the lines to the register of these places wrapped around every barren isle in these small urban retail spaces.
They came with sleds, they came with gas cans, and they came with the means to take back anything they could through the barely walkable streets. The store clerks looked as helpless as those who would barge in out of breath, holding out hope for the typical milk, bread or eggs. It was the clerk’s responsibility to break the news that would induce such a look of heartbreak on all of those hopeful wanderers faces.
The morning grew only a little older when the herd of scavengers thickened. It began to remind me of something out of an apocalypse movie. Day After Tomorrow, The Walking Dead, World War Z. This mass exodus grew in direct correlation with the unspoken tension of fear. The more people seen in the streets by each other, the more the seriousness of the situation set in.
There was word of the National Guard being brought in. I said I’d believe it when I saw it. A close encounter with a military grade Humvee being driven by a soldier in full camouflaged combat gear removed any speculation. Though it made me wonder how exactly these wide gaited vehicles were going to navigate the full length of the streets. As every few blocks or so lay a car or two frozen in time. Abandoned and encased in blocks of frost, pushing further the impression of a disaster flick of post apocalyptic proportions. How long were these vehicles going to stay there blocking the roads for plows, ambulances, and other rescue vehicles?
Perhaps this is what The Guard was here to take care of. All we knew was that the driving bans that were enacted could not have been trespassed on if anyone tried. Nothing but these desert hummers and regulation plows, now arriving from Cattaraugus County, had a glimmer of a chance to make it out of their own driveways.
Utilizing social media I played my part in helping the neighborhood the best I could. I would update anyone who cared to follow either me or the hashtags attached to the live information I released. Which stores were open and what was their remaining stock; which roads had these out-of-town plow mercenaries working on them. I even talk about how many people are there out roaming the streets right now in these barely mosey able conditions. It gave me the sensation I was a photojournalist bringing first hand news of some foreign warzone or famine via National Geographic. People thanked me for showing them photos of their own avenues they were too afraid themselves to venture out to. Its amazing how connected you can be to people you may live near but have never met just because of a phone in your pocket.
There are customs unique to South Buffalo. Sacred delicacies and places you can bond with a complete stranger over. First among these is the great Imperial Pizza. During the first day of this storm an enormous question loomed over Buffalo’s Irish Heritage District. “When was Imperial opening?” The nourishment of this incredibly thick-crusted pie would go far beyond satisfying this neighborhoods growing communal hunger. Breaking the news that Imperial was up and running sent hope to people who were on the brink of despair. Declaring that Imperial Pizza was ready to serve for pickup figuratively made the sun glisten through the perpetually gloomy blizzard sky.
The crowd that formed inside assembled quicker than the blizzard itself had hit. Shoulder-to-shoulder the huddled masses shouted their orders. The bare-bones staff worked mindlessly and automatically to fill each one. Boxes were passed back as each pie was completed and then loaded onto wagons and toboggans for swift journeys home. The many framed and autographed Patrick Kane jerseys fogged up. The smell of sweet Buffalo-style tomato pizza sauce had never seemed so desirable. It was true what was said about this legendary destination.
Imperial Pizza did God’s work in God’s country since probably the beginning of time.
In this neighborhood’s many Catholic grade schools legend is taught that on the eighth day God created South Buffalo, and on the ninth day Imperial opened. In a storm of Biblical proportions, this little pizzeria became my neighborhood’s divine source of the loaves and the fish. Not to mention the fact that Imperial’s long time cross street rival remained closed through the whole ordeal. Checkmate Abbott Pizza…
Help was coming… So we were told by New York’s Governor and Buffalo’s Mayor both handing out donuts in front of Mercy Hospital. The roads may have been clearing up that day. The main avenues first of course, than little-by-little the residential side streets. The primary thing concerning everyone now was the effect the snow’s weight would have on everyone’s roofs.
The news showed a few houses in the suburbs already collapsed completely under the lingering powder’s presence. Again looking out of my back terrace I noticed the reaction some neighboring housetops were exhibiting. Dog-eared corners and buckling gutters. The falling of snow had finally stopped though, and warm weather was predicted in the near future. The abandoned cars were being dug out and returned to their owners. With neighborly help, I finally had visual evidence of my own car. More help arrived from plow barns as far away as Connecticut and Allegany.
People who hadn’t been able to even open their doors in days were waking up to paths anonymously dug leading to a partly cleared sidewalk. Stores now began to open widely and receive their long awaited restock. Mail and medicine arrived in stacks thanks to more community shovel brigades. Thanks to this selfless generosity those who needed the most help got it now without hesitation.
After hearing the confirmed death toll of 13 people, the reality of the storm hit its peak. But it was around this same time that these snow fighting vigilante groups emerged left and right serving under a silently implemented neighborhood creed of E Pluribus Unum.
Here I remembered the other thing we are famous for. Buffalo is the city of good neighbors. And there is no doubt about that any longer after this. This Thanksgiving I was most thankful for that title. Most thankful to have good neighbors in this good city. Thankful for Imperial Pizza and the sacrifices of those DOT mercenaries. Thankful the sun melted the snow just enough to save the roofs but not enough to induce a flood.
In a place with this kind of weather you need these kinds of neighbors. You need the teamwork of the whole block to rebuild and unearth that which was buried. You need all hands on deck to reclaim our land from the clutches of Mother Nature. Where would Buffalo be if we were not this good neighbored place? How could we move on the following week like none of this history making natural surprise ever happened?
Without the support of each other how would we have ever survived, The Knife?