Nobody knows quite what to call the storm that hit Buffalo Thursday and Friday, October 12 and 13. It wasn’t simply a blizzard, like that epic monster back in 1977 that piled snow so high you didn’t walk through fences or around the stalled cars, you just walked over them. Nor was it an ice storm. One weather reporter call it "thundersnow," which is as good as anything I’ve heard.
When I came home Thursday about 5:30, I noticed that along my street branches were hanging low. Snow-covered trees that weren’t willows drooped as if they were. The park across the street had a cold beauty to it that reminded me of one of my favorite passages in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: "All over Alabama, the lamps are out. Every leaf drenches the touch; the spider’s net is heavy. The roads lie there, with nothing to use them. The fields lie there, with nothing at work in them, neither man nor beast. The plow handles are wet, and the rails and the frogplates and the weeds between the ties: and not even the hurryings and hoarse sorrows of a distant train, on other roads, is heard."
But by the time I got to my driveway, pretty was over. The two red maples in front of my house were a third shorter than when I had left a few hours earlier and a huge oak directly across the street in Delaware park had lost nearly all of its larger limbs. Branches were on the ground everywhere.
About midnight I let my dog Henry out the kitchen door. Immediately there were two sharp cracks, like a rifle not far away in the woods. Henry scooted back inside. A little later I opened the front window and heard more of the crack crack crack, some close, some distant, some followed by muffled thumps. Each was a limb giving up, shearing away, falling to to the ground. All night I heard that sound like rifle fire, and the trees dying.
Off and on during the evening there had been thunder, but near morning it turned ferocious. One peal followed another, closer and closer. Some of the lightning struck the tall oaks and maples across the road. Not long before dawn, the electrical storm seemed centered in this part of the park: though closed eyelids I saw brilliant flashes of light immediately followed by enormous blasts of thunder. Henry stayed close.
Lake effect snow
Outsiders think of Buffalo as a city of snow and ice, but they’ve got it wrong.
Many of Buffalo’s houses are set back from the street, so they have lawns and, in many areas, greenways between the sidewalks and the roads. Near Delaware Park, wide parkways, also designed by Olmsted, have as many as six parallel green spaces if you count the lawns on either side. Visitors are often surprised by the vast expanse of green when you fly over the city into the Buffalo airport in spring and summer, or how the gorgeous colors of fall in the rural land to the city’s south continue right up the shore of Lake Erie. For locals, it’s always one of the pleasures of coming home. Buffalo is a city of trees: maples, oaks, chestnuts, ash, sycamores.
It sometimes gets cold here, but rarely does it get very cold. Now and then it snows here, but rarely more than a few inches. Sometimes, as in the winters of 1977 and 2003, we get heavy snowfalls, but that happens rarely enough that we remember the years when they happened and have stories about them. Winter doesn’t bother us very much. Like people around Chicago and Minneapolis and all the other cities in these latitudes, we know how to drive in snow and ice, and we have clothing appropriate to it. For us, the moist heat of the Deep South in summer is far more debilitating.
In winter, the towns south of Buffalo often get what the meteorologists call "lake effect snow"- sudden precipitation that occurs when cold Arctic air picks up moisture as it passes above the warmer Lake Erie water, then dumps it when it moves over the cooler landmass. But only rarely does that lake effect snow hit Buffalo. Most of the time when you see on national tv that Buffalo got two or three feet of snow in a lake effect storm, Buffalo itself really only got a few inches, but the towns south of Buffalo, the names of which you never hear unless you’re listening to one of the local stations, got the snowbanks. National news doesn’t differentiate city and suburb. In 1977 Buffalo got it. And, last Thursday night, Buffalo got it.
The leaves were still on the trees when this lake effect storm hit, and the wet snow clung to the leaves as well as the branches, tons of wet snow on the larger trees, hundreds of pounds on the smaller trees. The leaves and branches were warmer than the snow, so it melted, the water held in place by the new snow falling atop what was already there. The pines shrugged the storm off, but the broadleaf trees couldn’t abide that enormous weight.
By Friday morning, the great magnolia behind my house was a trunk with a single branch. The large black maple on the property line with the house to my left sheared down the middle–half of it on my neighbor’s roof, half on mine. Three trees belonging to my neighbor on the other side were across his row of arbor vitae and my driveway. Across the street, Delaware Park looked like a cyclone or hurricane had bullied its way through.
My family was lucky. Our electricity went off briefly five or six times, but it always came back on. Our driveway was blocked by those three fallen trees until Saturday night, but the city was shut down Friday and Saturday so there was nowhere to go anyway.
One of the oaks across the street has maybe twenty of its thickest limbs split away. At the top or end of each limb, a jagged six-foot spear of white wood reaches toward the sky. Rings of rubble surround most of the trees.
I’ve known some of those trees for thirty years. They say there are more than 5000 trees in Delaware Park and that 90 percent of them have suffered some damage and that many won’t survive. It’s the same all over the city, and in the towns.
Getting the word
The local news radio stations and tv stations kept up a steady supply of updates, but since two-thirds of the city was without electricity only the lucky third and people who’d gotten themselves battery-operated radios could hear them. Cell phones towers went on and off, as the power came and went. People with satellite-based cell phones fared far better.
The Buffalo News-the local daily owned by Warren Buffett-website was no help. It’s a site that is updated only once a day anyway, at 9:00 a.m. If a major disaster hits any time after that, the website won’t have any information about it until the next day. Reporters on the paper tell me that publisher Stanford Lipsey, a long-time friend of Buffett, doesn’t believe a web staff is worth the money, so they’re all waiting for him to retire and for the paper to get a new publisher more sympathetic to the digital age. But the minimal News web page was even worse than usual this weekend. The site went haywire Friday night-the index column, usually on the left of the screen, came up in the middle of the screen. If you clicked on any of the options- "front page," say-you’d see a flash of the page for less than a second, then the screen reverted to the centralized index. So the automatic program that posted the paper at nine a.m. was doing its job, but nobody could see get to see anything and, apparently, no one working at One News Plaza all weekend knew how to fix it, or cared to.
The politicians and the cameras
After the local stations came back on sometime Friday morning, the politicians couldn’t spend enough time before the tv cameras and microphones talking about something for which, finally, they had no responsibility and couldn’t be held accountable. Most didn’t have much to say (other than that they’re making sure everything that can be done by someone else is being done by someone else and it sure was a bad storm), but they said it over and over again and seemed really sincere. Overall, the politicians seemed to hover between deep-serious and pre-orgasmic.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown had the most camera face time, but Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds doubled up by being on camera during his own statements and hovering over Brown’s shoulder for many of Brown’s. When he moved off, Democrat Congressman Brian Higgins, did the same thing, either with Brown or with Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer.
Tom Reynolds, in deep trouble because he’s been challenged by a businessman running on the Democrat line who would in any other election be a Republican and because he’s tarnished by his support of the Iraq war (unpopular around here) and his relationship with House-pager Mark Foley (even more unpopular around here), was on constantly Friday and much of Saturday. He was available for news stories, appearances at community centers, manly poses with arms akimbo, whatever. This is a guy hardly anybody local ever saw before, unless they had a checkbook in hand, now he’s omnipresent. He keeps saying "Last night I talked to the FEMA director."
It was terrific for all of them, not just the troubled Tom Reynolds. All of them. Mayor Brown didn’t have to field questions about how he sold the city out a few days earlier by cutting a casino deal with the Seneca Gaming Corporation that, after months of huffing and puffing, got the city nothing it didn’t have five months ago and which will, in the long run, cost the city many times what brings in. Brian Higgins didn’t have to talk about why he is George Bush’s favorite Democrat war-lover and why he was one of the few Democrats to vote to weaken Constitutional safeguards and back out of the Geneva Convention last month. Governor George Pataki didn’t have to talk about anything other than the weather and a state of emergency he hopes the Federal government will pay for. For politicians on the way out or in embarrassing positions, it rarely gets any better than that
Byron gets strange
By Saturday, Mayor Brown had gotten strange in the interviews. In a singsong voice, he would repeat every question, like a kid in fifth grade geography: "Franklin: What is the capital of Spain?" "The capital of Spain is Madrid." "And what is the capital of North Dakota?" "The capital of North Dakota isthe capital of North Dakota is" Like that. At first I thought it was maybe because he was really tired from being up all night telling the road crews where to go, but then I remembered that somebody else does that.
Maybe it was because he hadn’t made the shift to live interviews. People who are interviewed a lot learn to repeat the question to make it easier for the guy in the cutting room to find a seven-second sound bite later. But seven-second- sound-bite style doesn’t work when it’s going out live and long. When it’s going out live and long the fifth-grade-geography call and response style just sounds strange or canned, which is how Brown sounded.
Over the weekend, most of the politicians appeared on camera in sweaters, even Pataki, who looked like he’d just come off the tennis club patio on a cool fall evening. The only thing missing was the glass with the straw. Reynolds sported a black vest on Friday and Saturday and a heavy wintry shirt on Sunday. Whenever he wasn’t at a mike or lectern he stood in that arms akimbo pose, like a captain at the bow of a ship, looking at something, but the only thing I could figure that was in his field of view was the camera. By Sunday, Byron Brown was back in a suitcoat, though without a necktie. Brian Higgins favored dark turtlenecks the entire time. Hillary Clinton was the only one who never adopted a wintry costume for the event or the cameras.
On Sunday, all over town you could hear the up and down whine of chainsaws, sometimes singing duets or trios, common in the suburbs but rare within the cityline. By afternoon, there were neat piles of branches in front of many houses. It was a clear blue day, with only occasional tufts of cloud here and there, and the temperature was in the mid-fifties, easy weather for working outdoors.
By Tuesday morning the streets were mostly clear, but it was difficult for the work crews to get to the downed trees behind many houses, and many of those trees took power lines with them. About a quarter-million people were still without electricity; many did not have phone service and many others in the surrounding towns couldn’t trust their water supply. Most traffic lights still weren’t working.
Had the same storm come along two or three weeks later, after the maple, oak and ash leaves had fallen to the ground in their usual autumn fashion, it would have been just one more two-foot snowfall with a melt a day or two later, no big deal around these parts. It came now while the leaves were there to catch the weight. It was a piece of bad luck. Bad luck happens. You deal with it.
What happened in Buffalo these past two days and what will be dealt with over the next several weeks is, by and large, mostly an inconvenience. A far bigger inconvenience for some people than others, but few people died as a result of this storm and few were injured. Many kids missed a week of school and many adults lost a week or more of wages. Small business took a hit.
A year from now we’ll be telling stories about this storm the way some of us are still telling stories about the Blizzard of ’77. It is terribly sad about the trees-but they are, finally, trees, not people. Forty years ago, some Buffalo’s major streets went bare when the Dutch Elm blight ravaged the Northeast. All those barren streets were replanted. It took a while, but the green shade came back. This time too, it will take a while, and then the green shade will come back.
I find it difficult not to think of my friends in New Orleans, the enormity of what they went through, what many of them are still going through. New Orleans was a natural event, like this one, but it was compounded by official incompetence, disinterest and malfeasance. A lot of people died.
It is difficult not to think of people at the World Trade Center, at Oklahoma City, in Iraq and Lebanon and all those other places where nature had nothing to do with it at all, where the disasters rained down merely because someone felt like doing it, had the technology to do it, and chose to do it.
We’re lucky, here in Buffalo, and we know it.
For a slideshow of images from the Buffalo thundersnow go to http://brucejackson.us/thundersnow/thundersnow.html
BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor at University at Buffalo. He edits the web journal BuffaloReport.com. His book The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories will be published in March by Temple University Press.