They don’t happen a lot. Once every few years, by most accounts.
But not this winter. No, we’ve already had two and we’re still a week shy of spring.
We’re talking blizzards, the kind that literally swept through the region Wednesday, dropping nearly a foot of snow on the ground and causing wind gusts of more than 40 miles an hour.
No one knows for sure when the last two-blizzard winter was, but they certainly are rare.
“I think you have to go back to 1977,” said Andy Mussoline, an AccuWeather meteorologist. “That was a busy year for blizzards.”
This one was not only second for the season, it was smaller too.
The snowfall was less than the one in January. So was the time between the storm’s arrival and its departure.
The only thing that was higher this time were the temperatures, and that was already starting to change by early evening.
“Absolutely,” said Bob Hamilton, National Weather Service meteorologist, when asked about the likely drop in temperatures overnight.
Hamilton also expected winds to diminish with a corresponding improvement in visibility by the drive time commute this morning.
Even more important, perhaps, the four-county blizzard advisory was canceled at around 9 p.m. Wednesday.
There have been worse storms, a lot worse, but the news that Wednesday’s daylong marathon of snow and wind met all the essential elements of a good blizzard got people scurrying for the record books.
The National Weather Service says it doesn’t keep that type of record, and amateur forecasters couldn’t recall another winter when there have been two blizzards.
Buffalo historian Steve Cichon said he had to go all the way back to 1936 to find news accounts of back-to-back blizzards.
And like this year, it was in March, right around St. Patrick’s Day.
“It was a really cold winter,” Cichon said. “There was snow already on the ground and then another 20 inches fell. There was panic and then another eight inches fell on top of that.”
But were they actually blizzards as they are defined today?
Actually, under the current definition, you don’t even need new snow to have a blizzard.
Today, all you need are two weather conditions for a sustained three-hour period of time – wind gusts of at least 35 miles an hour and visibility of less than one-quarter of a mile.
Poor visibility and sustained winds. Those are the bedrock ingredients of a basic blizzard.
While smaller and shorter than its January predecessor, this blizzard was no less a worry for emergency planners.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz spent much of the day Wednesday monitoring the blizzard from the Erie County Emergency Services Training and Operation Center in Cheektowaga.
With him was Daniel J. Neaverth Jr., the county’s emergency services commissioner and one of the many officials glad to be dealing with a much smaller storm.
“This is a one-day event over a broad region,” Neaverth said.
Neaverth acknowledged the storm’s lack of a surprise but said he would never suggest a storm is over-hyped.
“We know what can happen with the weather,” he said.
Poloncarz said the county’s advance warnings about the storm seemed to have kept motorists off the roads. And yet, there were still a number of accidents, including a jackknifed tractor-trailer Wednesday on the Thruway.
And while the snow fell short of some forecasts, there was enough of it to break Buffalo’s snowfall record for March 12.
Just before midnight Wednesday, 13.8 inches had fallen at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. That brought the total for the season to more than 120.5 inches – about 24 inches more than the seasonal average.
The snowfall also set a single-day record for snow this season. The previous mark was 8.8 inches Feb. 5.
This storm even added a little drama to its presentation – a few claps of thunder in what some saw as a harbinger of the storm still to come. In truth, it wasn’t nearly as severe as the blizzard in January, but it was a blizzard nevertheless.
“This is the first time – at least in the last 40 years,” Jon Hitchcock, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Buffalo, said of the back-to-back blizzards. “As far as anybody knows, this is the first time we’ve had two in one season.”
NBC’s Al Roker also weighed into the debate, tweeting that it’s the “first time Buffalo has had two blizzards in one winter in just over 130 years of daily record-keeping at the Buffalo airport.”
The storm did wreak its share of havoc despite falling short of expectations.
It forced hundreds of schools, courts and government offices to close for the day.
It also caused power failures affecting 1,000 customers in Cheektowaga, 580 in Orchard Park and 78 in Hamburg. People in Dunkirk also were without power.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared the storm serious enough to warrant a state of emergency in Erie, Niagara and most Western New York counties.
In addition, several municipalities issued travel advisories, some of which were lifted later in the day. In Erie County, the travel advisory was lifted at 4 a.m. today.
News Staff Reporters Janice Habuda, T.J. Pignataro, Charity Vogel, Lou Michel, Jill Terreri and James Staas contributed to this report.