BUFFALO, N.Y. – A dangerous lake-effect snowstorm paralyzed parts of western and northern New York on Friday, dumping over 5 feet in some spots with more expected to fall through the night into Saturday. The storm was blamed for the deaths of two people stricken while clearing snow.
The storm's severity varied widely due to the peculiarities of lake-effect storms, which are caused by frigid winds picking up moisture from warmer lakes and dumping snow in narrow bands.
Residents in some parts of Buffalo spent Friday buffeted by blowing, heavy snow, punctuated by occasional claps of thunder, while just a few miles north, only a few inches fell and there were patches of blue sky.
The heaviest snowfall was south of the city. The National Weather Service reported single-day totals of 3 feet (1 meter) in many places along the eastern end of Lake Erie, with bands of heavier precipitation bringing 66 inches (168 centimeters) in the Buffalo suburb of Orchard Park, 48 inches (122 centimeters) in Elma and more than 3 feet in Hamburg, where rescue crews were called to help a resident whose home buckled under the weight.
Schools were shuttered. Amtrak stations in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Depew closed Thursday and Friday. Numerous flights in and out of Buffalo Niagara International Airport were canceled.
The storm was blamed for two deaths, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said, tweeting that they were "associated with cardiac events related to exertion during shoveling/snow blowing.”
“We send our deepest sympathies and remind all that this snow is very heavy and dangerous,” he said.
By Friday afternoon, AAA tow truck drivers were having trouble reaching dozens of stranded drivers who defied travel bans and advisories, association spokeswoman Elizebeth Carey said.
“The AAA crews were trying to get to people that had called in saying they were broken down or stranded or had gone off the road in their vehicle. ... A lot of our tow truck drivers kept calling in saying that `police turned me away,'” she said. In some cases, tow trucks followed behind payloaders enlisted to clear the way. The AAA passed along other drivers' locations to police.
Even before the snow began falling, the NFL announced it would relocate the Buffalo Bills’ Sunday home game against the Cleveland Browns from the team's stadium in Orchard Park to Detroit.
A day later the Bills tweeted photos of Highmark Stadium showing the playing field and its more than 60,000 seats virtually buried in snow, and forecasters warned of an additional foot or more by Sunday.
Scott Fleetwood of West Seneca captured video of lightning crashing outside his home throughout the night, as well as snow swiftly burying the pumpkins on his porch.
“The sky is white. ... Everything’s white. The only thing you can see really is the house across the street,” he said.
“My tiki bar is now an igloo,” he added.
Zaria Black of Buffalo cleared several inches off her car Friday morning as she prepared to go to work. The Amazon employee expected she'd be outside much of the day and was nervous about road conditions.
“Right now, it’s looking pretty bad,” she said.
With numerous cars stuck and abandoned, Mayor Byron Brown urged people to stay off the roads in hard-hit south Buffalo, where extra city and private plows were deployed.
“When the snow is falling between 3 to 4, 5 inches an hour, you can't beat it,” he cautioned drivers at a news conference. “You are going to get stuck.”
Meanwhile, streets in downtown and north Buffalo had been cleared but were virtually empty of traffic Friday afternoon. Buffalo resident David Munschauer was well aware of the wildly contrasting scenes as he walked around.
“I’m 68, and I’ve lived in this town probably 60 of the 68, and it always amazes me,” he said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency Thursday for parts of western New York, including communities along the eastern ends of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The declaration covers 11 counties, with all vehicles banned from a stretch of Interstate 90.
“I am so proud of Western New Yorkers for heeding our call to stay off the roads last night; it was treacherous," Hochul told radio station WBEN. "And as a result, we were able to salt, we were able to clear the roads better than we would’ve if they had been filled with traffic, and we really avoided a large number of accidents.”
Catholic Health, which operates several health care facilities in the storm zone, has been preparing for days.
“Our staff has really stepped up, and people have been making every effort to get in where they can. Some associates are spending the night," spokeswoman JoAnn Cavanaugh said. “We've made sure our supplies are stocked — food and things for our patients as well as associates."
Heavy snow accumulations were also reported in northern New York on the eastern edge of Lake Ontario, and in parts of northern Michigan. Parts of Pennsylvania also were seeing accumulations of lake-effect snow.
Fort Drum, New York, near Lake Ontario, saw 42 inches, the National Weather Service reported Friday.
In southwestern Michigan, state police reported a 20- to 25-vehicle pileup on U.S. 131 in Kalamazoo County. No serious injuries were reported.
“Roads still icy, slushy, we must slow down,” police said on Twitter.
Buffalo has experience with dramatic lake-effect snowstorms, few worse than the one that struck in November of 2014. That epic storm dumped 7 feet (2 meters) of snow on some communities over three days, collapsing roofs and trapping motorists in more than 100 vehicles on a lakeside stretch of the New York State Thruway.
Registered nurse Mary Ann Murphy recalled trudging on foot to Mercy Hospital, husband Steve at her side, in the 2014 storm. The memory made both especially glad she was able to drive to work Friday, despite roughly 2 feet of snow.
“I just kind of gunned it down the street in my little SUV,” said Murphy, who lives about a mile from the Buffalo hospital. “I was just thrilled I didn't have to walk.”
Friday's snow also reminded Bruce Leader of the 2014 storm, dubbed “Snow-vember,” which, like this week's storm, also left some parts of the region buried while others saw just a few inches.
“I was driving back and forth to work to Niagara County scratching my head, like, `What’s all the big hubbub about?′” he said of the 2014 event. “And down there, my friends are like, `Here’s the hubbub,′ sending me photos. And they were doing the same thing this morning.”
Associated Press reporters Alina Hartounian in Phoenix, John Wawrow in Buffalo and Ed White in Detroit contributed to this report.