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These Variables Converged to Make New York’s Tragic Holiday Blizzard a Disaster

It was a snowstorm that stalled emergency response and caused cars to seek shelter in stores, yet despite all of the warnings about the approaching storm, more than three dozen people were murdered, and many others were displaced by what has been dubbed a “once-in-a-generation” storm.

To many people’s astonishment, it wasn’t Atlanta, Houston, or even Charlotte that made headlines for being unprepared for a winter storm, but rather Buffalo, New York, a city in the Northeast’s Snowbelt. The metro region receives an average of 95 inches of snow per year, but experts say the ingredients for a catastrophic storm came together in a way that few winter storms do. Even the best-prepared towns were overwhelmed by the consequences.

Light snowfall began several days before the main event, which began on December 23 and continued until Christmas Eve. Winds reached hurricane force at the blizzard’s center, and snow piled up in feet, not inches. Unlike the November 2022 event, which dumped more than 80 inches of snow in sections of the metro, temperatures, the breadth of the storm, and the duration of the impacts all outperformed former events, prompting many to compare the system to the 1977 blizzard.

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“I worked in the National Weather Service office in Buffalo for almost 30 years, and this is probably right where the blizzard of ’77, the worst storm I’ve seen there during the winter period, happened,” FOX Weather winter storm specialist Tom Niziol said.

Instead of power outages, zero visibility, and the possibility of hyperthermia, many locals were out and about on the Friday before Christmas, preparing for the holiday weekend. County and city officials convened press conferences to warn of the impending tragedy, but the commotion coincided with the start of blizzard conditions, which lasted 37 hours and sent wind chills to more than 20 degrees below zero.

Throughout the three-day incident, videos from western New York showed automobiles abandoned on highways and people seeking refuge in stores. More than a dozen people spent a portion of their Christmas vacation in a Target store, waiting for visibility to improve and hazardous wind gusts to subside.

Dozens of people were stranded in a Target store in Buffalo during the Christmas weekend due to a blizzard.
Jessica Sypniewski was one of approximately 30 people who became stranded in a Target store during the holiday weekend blizzard in Buffalo.

“It’s the confluence of impacts that causes a disaster,” Niziol explained. “Heavy snow and strong gusts caused drifts of 10, 12, and 14 feet high. Arctic temps – you’re locked in your car, and the temperatures and wind chills have dropped below zero.

You can’t see anything outside your car. What are you going to do? You are terrified. You try to find some assistance. You become entrapped in a snowdrift. You are overwhelmed by the winds. And it was there that several people died. The last feature is the densely populated area.

It happened in a city, and this is where everything comes together to create what I call a meteorological disaster.” In addition to Mother Nature’s factors, some Empire State leaders questioned the state’s response to the disaster.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has been at the forefront of messaging and said there were likely more local governments, including the city of Buffalo, could have done in preparing for the blizzard. “Storm, after the storm, after the storm, after the storm, the city, unfortunately, is the last one to be open, and that shouldn’t be the case,” Poloncarz said during a Wednesday news conference. “To tell you the truth, it’s embarrassing.”

Given the historic nature of the winter blast, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said there was little more that could have been done. “People have been working around the clock since the storm began,” Brown said. “Some people react to pressure in very different ways. Some people continue to work. Some keep trying to help the residents of our community, and some break down and lash out.”

The biggest snow accumulation in Buffalo was more than four feet. If climatology plays out, Buffalo likely has yet to experience its last snow event of the winter weather season, even though the region has already witnessed accumulations of 6 inches beyond what a typical year generates. The second-largest city in New York has already had more than 101 inches of snow, with heavy weather predicted through at least April.

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