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How Buffalo is clearing 80 inches of snow almost as fast as it fell

Front loaders took to the streets of Buffalo to clear mountains of snow left over from the Nov. 18 storm. Some areas experienced 77 inches of snow. (Video: The Washington Post)

In the aftermath of one of western New York’s most extreme snowfalls on record, a monumental effort to clear up to six-and-a-half feet of snow is nearly complete. The effort has involved armies of people and hundreds of plows, loaders, snowblowers and tracked vehicles.

Less than 48 hours since the historic snowfall, many of the hardest hit communities are back on their feet.

While some neighborhood roads are still buried in snow, Mark Poloncarz, Erie County’s executive, reports that all major highways, arterial roads and secondary routes are now open.

“Now we’re just kind of touching up and finishing the work that needs to be done to ensure that every neighborhood has been cleared,” Poloncarz told The Washington Post on Monday.

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Erie County, which includes Buffalo, received some of the most astronomical snow amounts from the lake-effect snow event, which also walloped areas downwind of Lake Ontario with up to 6 feet of snow.

In Erie County, the National Weather Service received a report of 81.2 inches in Hamburg, N.Y., which is 15 miles south of Buffalo. At one point, snow was pounding the ground at upward of five inches per hour. In Orchard Park, home to the Buffalo Bills, 80 inches was reported.

Around Hamburg and Orchard Park, 60 inches fell between Thursday night and Friday night alone, probably setting a new 24-hour state record.

“We get lake-effect snowstorms. They are not unusual,” Poloncarz said. “What’s unusual is the amount of snow that fell with this snowstorm.”

What is thundersnow and how does it happen? The rare weather phenomenon, explained.

Matthew Latko, the division director for the New York State Thruway Authority in Buffalo, who has lived in the city for nearly 34 years, called it “the biggest storm ever.” He raved about his team’s response.

“I don’t think anybody in the country put in what our guys did and the recovery time that we had,” he said.

All hands on deck

The rapid-fire cleanup brought together counties, towns, New York state and partners in the contracting business.

Teams from the New York Thruway Authority in Buffalo and the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) worked around-the-clock pushing snow from the roads to snow storage areas on road shoulders during whiteout conditions. There were large chunks of time where workers couldn’t see past the hood of their cars, Latko said.

Trucks that couldn’t plow the dense snow lifted and pushed the white heaps off the road. Overflowing snow was also moved into dump trailers and taken to abandoned parking lots or other open spaces in heaps.

“As of right now, there is a pile of snow that’s four and a half stories tall at one of our community colleges that we’re using as a dump site,” Poloncarz said.

As of Monday morning, travel bans were only in place in the city of Lackawanna and half of Buffalo while efforts were made to clear the roadways. It took workers a little longer to clear Lackawanna and parts of Buffalo because the areas are more densely populated and have narrower streets. Poloncarz hoped to lift Lackawanna’s driving ban by the end of the day.

Eighteen communities were originally placed under driving and travel bans on Thursday to allow snowplows to clear the streets when the snow wasn’t as deep. Some 400 trailer drivers were fined over the weekend for disobeying the order. Many of the vehicles got stuck.

Over 500 plow trucks from the NYSDOT were deployed to roadways across the region, according to Marie Therese Dominguez, the NYSDOT commissioner. Mechanics from around the state maintained heavy equipment all weekend and safety representatives made sure workers were trained.

Before the snow covered the ground, layers of brine, a very high concentration of salty water, were lathered onto the roads to prevent hard layers of snow from becoming hardly packed.

In addition to the efforts from government agencies, neighbors helped neighbors.

Nick Belles, 26, a plowman clearing commercial lots in Buffalo’s south towns, said he got a total of three hours of sleep during a three-day stretch. He kept himself up by chugging coffee.

“Just trying to stay going,” he said.

The snow came so heavy, he switched from plowing with a pickup to using a backhoe and other heavy equipment.

Residents joined forces to ensure that Buffalo Bills players were able to make it to the airport after their matchup against the Cleveland Browns was moved from Orchard Park, which received snowfall as tall as their quarterback Josh Allen, to Detroit. The Bills iced the Browns out with a 31-23 win.

Officials advised that the heavy lifting be left to professionals. Two people died of heart attacks in Erie County from shoveling.

“There are no generals in this war, so to speak,” Poloncarz said. “Everyone is working together.”

At the federal level, President Biden agreed to send aid to the 11 affected counties to assist state and local authorities with their cleanup efforts. The emergency declaration authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide disaster relief.

The aid falls on the heels of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) plea to the president for emergency aid on Saturday.

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This was the biggest storm to hit Buffalo since November 2014, when communities south of Buffalo were blanketed in 7 feet of snow over the course of three days. That storm claimed 14 lives.

The paralyzing storm in 2014 forced nearly 300 New York National Guard members to step in to remove the snow. The snow piles from the storm lingered until July.

This time, Poloncarz believes the region was better prepared.

“It’s been a monumental effort,” he said. “I don’t think there are many parts of the United States that could have responded to this type of storm and recovered as quickly as we have.”

Dino Grandoni contributed to this report.