Living Through a Blizzard in Buffalo
A poorer response could have easily resulted in three-figure casualties.
Four to six. It started as many Buffalo forecasts do, not specifying inches or feet. In a region known for its volatile weather, it's still possible to surprise residents with a meteorological event. In the days leading up to the largest single-day snowfall in the history of New York state, the forecast gradually moved closer to the "feet" than "inches." Earlier in the week, as I stopped at Tim Hortons for coffee, I looked out at an angry Lake Erie, and felt the sea breeze. Like an Indian reading nature's concentric circles, I sensed something ominous.
By the day before, there was no longer any doubt that the snowfall would be measured in feet.
A weather model is based on the partial differential equation—an equation that doesn't produce a single result, but explains the transition from one state to another. Think, for example, of a single-variable calculus function, which represents Usain Bolt’s rate of acceleration in a 100 meter dash.
In any partial differential equation, a slight change in inputs can have an outsize impact on the output. And the input data for weather forecasts—things like dew point or temperature—inherently have some margin of error. The weather forecaster, then, needs to assess the margin of error for every major weather data point, comparing his estimates with historical data to determine the most likely weather events (snow, rain, etc.). The forecaster then runs the model thousands of times, and counts the number of times a particular event is found among the results, e.g., a "90% chance of rain." Forecasters try to "calibrate" their models so that when it says 90 percent chance of rain, it rains 90 percent of the time in reality.
But the average American is bad at math. And the day before the storm, when the NFL announced that the Buffalo Bills' game would be moved to Detroit, many locals were baffled. Isn't this just snow? After all, grocery stores were busy. The plow crews were on a war footing. Other critical infrastructure crews soon followed suit.
Whatever Buffalonians lacked in foresight, they made up for in resilience.
I work in close proximity to blue-collar America, in critical infrastructure. But I am a member of the laptop class, as was revealed by my first contact with the storm. As I walked outside to pick up a Doordash order, snow fell upon me with the intensity of a downpour. It continued for a couple hours, stopped for an hour, and restarted until Friday evening.
The day of the storm, I woke up early for work and got ready for war. In what would become a running theme for the day, my small German sedan got stuck on the perilous roads. After attempting to resolve the situation on my own, I called my employer to request a truck be dispatched to help me out. Before they arrived, I managed to resolve the situation—and good thing I did as the guy who was to come help me arrived two hours after I did—by snowmobile.
That level of commitment was characteristic of those who man Western New York’s critical infrastructure, who smashed this challenge. Despite snow falling at twice the rate at which plows can keep up, the roads were passable. Only a few thousand customers lost power for a few hours each, which would be a significant achievement in a minor snowstorm, let alone a multi-foot deluge. No one lost heat, water, or sewerage, services that require field crews performing under difficult circumstances to continue operations. Hospitals were prepared with food and supplies, and even stocked some staff in hotels so they wouldn’t have to brave a commute.
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Transportation crews freed those who falsely believed they had the legal and practical right to drive on snow-covered roads, and subsequently got stuck. Unwilling to find out what happens when 77” of snow melts, tired crews immediately began hauling away the snow in dump trucks at the storm’s conclusion.
My commute home was as amusing. Road blockages demanded a convoluted route. The snow simultaneously demanded an aggressive rate of speed, to avoid getting stuck, and caution, to avoid losing control. I was freed from one moment of paralysis by a state employee using a backhoe and a mountain of snow to protect my front end from his bucket.
For the five who died as a result of the storm, or the few who suffered serious property damage, such as the historic bowling alley in Hamburg, N.Y., these workers’ success is of little solace. But given the number of stranded motorists, the potential for utility interruption, and likelihood of flooding, a poorer response could have easily resulted in three-figure casualties. Instead, most Buffalo residents suffered from nothing more than a few days of television and hot chocolate. Unlike other cities who’ve experienced similar meteorological events, Buffalo will need no celebrity fundraiser.