No matter how aggravating, grueling and scary the Blizzard of ’14 has been, it just can’t compare to the Blizzard of ’77.
It’s still the worst storm of recent Buffalo history.
The current blizzard ending late Tuesday or early today just can’t compare with the 1977 version, the all-time measuring stick for area storms.
The current storm falls far short, in wind gusts, sustained winds, volume of blowing snow, duration, number of stranded people and, luckily, deaths.
The 2014 version holds its own, versus its 1977 grandfather, in one or two categories, with more than 18 inches of snow expected in the hardest-hit areas in the Southtowns. Just about 12 inches fell 37 years ago. The temperatures and wind chills seem similar, but that’s hard to compare, because the wind chill formula has changed over time.
But the most recent blizzard is still a big event. It’s only the fourth blizzard in the last 40 years, enough to justify the “once in a decade” label that some National Weather Service meteorologists don’t like.
The others occurred in 1977, 1985 and 1993, so we’ve gone more than 20 years without a full-fledged blizzard.
“This one qualifies as the Weather Service definition of a blizzard,” meteorologist David Zaff said. “It’s dangerous, but I don’t think you can compare it to the Blizzard of ’77. They’re both extreme events, but the Blizzard of ’77 was on the extreme edge of climatic possibilities.
“You couldn’t get much worse than that,” he added.
Here are some of the basic differences between the two storms, using figures from the National Weather Service, The Buffalo News and other published accounts:
• Wind speeds: Wind and the large existing snow pack were the main culprits in the 1977 storm.
Peak gusts then measured 69 mph at the airport, while that blizzard packed average sustained wind speeds of 46 mph; both those figures are significantly higher than their 2014 counterparts.
• Existing snow: Blizzards don’t require a lot of falling snow, but the snow has to come from somewhere. The brutal winter of 1976-77 had left a pre-storm snow depth of 37 inches, while Sunday night’s rain through most of Western New York knocked the official snow depth down to 2 inches.
That in itself created a huge difference between the two storms.
In 1977, Zaff noted, the heavy sustained winds “took all the snow off the lake and dumped it onto the Greater Buffalo area, from St. Catharines all the way to Buffalo.”
• Stranded residents: Much of the lore of the Blizzard of ’77 was crafted around the thousands of people stranded, many of them sleeping in their offices on the night of Friday, Jan. 28, that year. More than 1,000 people reportedly stayed in Memorial Auditorium or the old Donovan State Office Building downtown, and an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 spent the night stranded somewhere.
That comparable number this year is expected to be in the dozens, or maybe hundreds.
• Deaths: The National Weather Service records list 29 deaths related to the 1977 event, including people stricken while trying to dig out their cars or shoveling snow, others found in their homes or buried vehicles and still others killed in accidents.
No deaths have been reported in this storm, through late Tuesday.
• Warning: The lack of deaths and stranded residents speaks to the superior advanced warning for this storm, compared with 37 years ago.
Kevin O’Connell, chief weather anchor at WGRZ-TV Channel 2, cited the increased emergency preparedness over the years, including the various local governments’ emergency plans and the closing of highways like the Thruway, where people can be trapped with nowhere to go.
O’Connell, who was stranded for the night while working at Channel 4 during the 1977 storm, noted the meteorological advances since then, with new tools such as Doppler radar and satellite imagery.
“We can not only predict what the storm is going to be, but it’s much better in terms of timing, intensity and duration,” he said.
And with all the attention, from traditional print and broadcast to social media, you had to be living under a bridge not to know in advance about the seriousness of this latest storm.
As O’Connell said, “Everyone hit this one right on the button.”