June 03, 2023
Surviving a Blizzard in the City of Lights

You rely on the things you know, and know are right

By Misha Wagner

Did we know that Buffalo was once known as the City of Lights, asked my father, as we pulled past the gates of Buffalo International Airport and turned left on to Genesee Street?

Continuing on, as he is wont to do, because people these days don’t know these things and after 25 years teaching history in a public middle school, he more than others, understands this: “Well - it was - the first city in the country to have hydroelectric power - hooked it right up to Niagara Falls — lights in every home — marvel of its time.” But that was a long time ago, and the lights were out in Buffalo today on account of an unusually early snowfall.

Between two and three feet in less than 24 hours, the Weather Channel said. Deep into snow season, when the city salt trucks were loaded up, with the snow-blowers oiled and gassed, the city of Buffalo would have handled the storm with practiced grace.

This snow came early, though; in mid-October, before the trees had shed their leaves. Weighed down by ice and snow, branches snapped and older, weaker trees split and fell to the ground. Streets were blocked and lawns were covered. Wet and heavy, trees tore through power lines and punctured rooftops. The beautiful Dutch elm trees, the city’s most magnificent residents, were the most sorrowful victims.

The elms were planted at the turn of the century as the city prepared to host the Pan American Exposition in 1901. The air had been filled with promise and invention. Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of our national parks system, wished that they would canopy the parkways and the parks of the city of Buffalo for a hundred years. The man must have had an acute sense of timing, because a hundred years proved about right. Few survived the storm.

A driving ban had been instated for non-essential personnel. My mother, a registered nurse at Buffalo General Hospital, was able to drive as necessary with her employee ID, but there weren’t many places to go as most of the city was shut down.

When we reached Williamsville, the town where I grew up and my parents presently live, many of the traffic lights were out. Although it was the middle of the day, the whole town was dim and still.

The bare essentials were open: the hospital, Wegman’s grocery, a lone Sunoco station.

I looked over my right shoulder through the condensation and drip of the passenger-side window to see the red glow of the “open” sign in front of Tim Horton’s. Tim Horton’s appeared to be running on an emergency backup generator; the traffic light at the near corner of Hopkins and Sheridan did not.

“Timmy’s” is synonymous with coffee in this part of the world, and thought worthy of its own compartment in the food pyramid. Tim Horton’s coffee shop, started by and named after a local hockey legend, is actually a Canadian chain that found a second home in Buffalo. They have one blend, no Sumatra roast, French roast, Columbian fair trade variety. It’s just coffee, always hot and fresh and exactly the same for $1.15 a cup. Dunkin Donuts barely competes in this market, and at last count there were only a few Starbucks in the area.

A true Rust Belt city, people here worked hard for their money, and a $4 cup of coffee was perceived by most to be laughable, unnecessary and an intrusion. We drove away from Timmy’s with a tray of three large coffees, mixed “double-double,” as the order goes if you’d like twice the standard amount of cream and sugar added for you.

Once home, I could see that our house had no power, and immediately upon entering could feel that there was no heat either. Con Ed anticipated it could be about a week before the power was back on, so our neighborhood had to make do. Blackouts occur nearly every winter in the City of Lights, so many residents have backup generators in their basements or backyards. Last January our furnace broke, and my parents went without heat for days; unconvinced that they needed a generator too. This storm changed their thinking on the subject, and they had been talking to the neighbors all afternoon about finding one.

Unfortunately and expectedly, every Home Depot and appliance center within 400 miles of Buffalo was already sold out. Mrs. Rotecki, our next-door neighbor, was ordering one through her Sears Catalogue, figuring somehow that despite the driving ban, it would be delivered in a jiffy.? My brother wanted to drive the five hours to Albany that afternoon to get one he had reserved over the phone. Dad thought we should try to connect our house to another neighbor’s backyard generator, since they were in Delhi for the month.

We ventured out later that afternoon to find rations for the coming days: extra batteries, candles, bottled water and warm food, if possible. La Nova’a Pizzeria, also a local favorite, was open for service, with a one-hour wait for a pizza. La Nova employs local high school students to work behind the counter and as has been the case since I was in high school, most of them look like they were straight out of juvie. As with Timmy’s, variety isn’t in their sales pitch; one type of pizza is available, and many toppings are not. Locals agree it’s the perfect pizza and needs no improvement or modification. They offer a choice of square or round pies to make you feel as though you have options.

After an hour of waiting in the car in La Nova’s parking lot, we drove our hot, square pizza home to have dinner over candlelight.

Weeks earlier, we’d purchased tickets to the Sabres game. Given that Buffalo was in an official state of emergency, we called to inquire about whether that night’s game was still on.

“Of course it is,” the customer service representative replied, incredulously.

In Buffalo, a hometown favorite, whether it’s the local hockey team, pizza plant or coffee shop, has a devoted and loyal fan base.

So, once again, we took our chances with the driving ban and headed downtown for the match.

At the entrance to Route 33, we reached a checkpoint lighted by emergency flares.? An officer trudged toward our car for questioning, and we prepared to be turned back.

“Where you headed?”

None of us looked like we were in urgent need of medical attention, so I was honest.

“Downtown, HSBC Arena.”

“Going to the game?”

“Yes sir, we’ve got Sabres tickets”

“Can I see them, please?”

Reluctantly, I hand them over for inspection.

“Playing the Rangers tonight, eh? I hear Ryan Miller’s out with a sprain…”

Fifteen minutes later we met the rest of the city in the gray cement monstrosity that is the parking garage of the HSBC Arena.

Apparently, attending the game was reason enough to clear through checkpoints all over the city.

American-made cars filled the lot, snow shovels and flashlights cluttering many backseats. A mass of smiling faces in white, blue and yellow jerseys herded toward the entrance, hungry for a showdown and a Salen’s hotdog. The lights were on and it was warm.? The stadium was packed.

It was hard to tell if this turnout was because of fan devotion, or because it was one of the only well lit and heated places in the city that night. On any other night, I would have known it was the former, but tonight, because of the exceptional circumstances, I believed it might have been a little of both.

Misha Wagner is a writer and aspiring documentarian who, seven years ago, left Buffalo for New York City.

One comment about “Surviving a Blizzard in the City of Lights”

  1. AndrewBoldman says:

    Hi, cool post. I have been wondering about this topic,so thanks for writing.

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