It’s worse when it’s personal.
The Blizzard of 2014 got personal for me Monday night. That’s when my wife and 21-year-old daughter, driving west on the Thruway from Rochester, hit the wall of the fury just outside of Batavia at about 7 p.m.
The next two hours, my wife said, were “the worst experience I have ever had on the road.”
Said my daughter, “I thought we were going to die; I’m not joking.”
This is a serious storm, even for Buffalo. It prompted the first official declaration of a blizzard here in 21 years. A heavy band of lake-effect snow squatted atop metro Buffalo. Temperatures Monday through Tuesday straddled either side of zero, with gusts upward of 35 mph blasting off the lake.
The Thruway from Williamsville to the Pennsylvania line closed Monday night. There were non-emergency driving bans in place Tuesday throughout the region. Schools and many businesses shut their doors. It is, by any measure, a monster storm.
For more than two hours Monday night, by wife and daughter were trapped in it.
Circumstances left them with no good choices. My daughter Alex, a college senior, last weekend completed a job internship in Florida. She packed her 1999 Acura TL and bought a ticket for Amtrak’s vehicle-transporting Autotrain to Washington, D.C. The train, her car aboard, arrived in D.C. on Monday morning. My wife, Debbie, had flown down to meet her, so they could together make what is normally a seven-hour drive.
As conditions worsened here Monday afternoon, I called and told them to stay on Route 390 into Rochester, rather than risk taking the two-lane shortcut from Geneseo into Batavia, at the eastern edge of the storm. They planned to drive west on the Thruway from Rochester, monitoring conditions along the way. If the lake-effect snow band shifted south of the Thruway, they presumably would have a slow-but-safe run. If it didn’t and things got dicey, they could bail out in Batavia and hunker down in a motel – probably for two nights, given the storm’s predicted 36-hour run.
They drove on the darkened road into the fist of the storm just east of Batavia. “There were just a handful of flakes for miles, then within, like, two or three minutes, there was this wall of snow,” my wife recalled. “You couldn’t see; everyone was slowing way down, single file, flashers on. It got to the point pretty quickly where you couldn’t tell where the edge of the road was, other than by the reflectors – and you couldn’t always see them.”
With a recent run of mild winters, it has been a while since most of us drove into the terrifying blankness of a whiteout. Mark Poloncarz, the county executive, warned people Tuesday morning – particularly in the snow-lighter Northtowns – not to think it was safe to get behind the wheel. A slight wind shift, and they could be driving blind.
“It’s too dangerous to put our plows” on some roads, Poloncarz noted, “when even they can’t see.”
That’s how it was Monday night on the Thruway – blowing snow, vehicles crawling at barely 10 mph, whiteouts bad enough to erase the flashing lights of the car directly ahead. My wife and daughter saw the exit sign for Batavia and decided to bail out. One problem: The darkness and the blowing snow made the ramp invisible.
“If we tried to pull off,” she said, “we would have driven into a ditch.”
They had no choice but to plow ahead, single file. They were at least spared the mind-numbing thunka-thunka of the windshield wipers. The wind was so fierce that it blew the windshield clear. But the blowing snow – either from the sky, or from what already was on the ground – fastened blinders on drivers.
It made, my wife said, for a nightmarish reality.
“Even when cars got stuck or stopped, you couldn’t see to pull into the left lane to get around them,” she recalled. “We saw at least a dozen vehicles that had slid off the left lane and were stuck in the culvert. One was down so deep you could only see one light flashing.”
With wind chills approaching minus-40, it doesn’t take long for fingers and toes to go numb, for frostbite to claim digits and even limbs. This is the problem with a storm like this. Get stuck, and – even in the age of cellphones – danger stalks.
Almost as bad as being stuck in a storm like this is sitting home, worrying. For two long hours Monday night, I texted on the phone with my daughter – me with updates on the shifting snow band, her with real-time conditions.
My wife said the darkness gave the Thruway an even greater sense of foreboding. “It felt like you were driving through wilderness, it was so dark,” she said.
“Once we hit Main Street, we at least had streetlights and lights from businesses. There are signs of civilization.”
It took them more than two hours to drive from Batavia to Buffalo, normally a half-hour trip. It was closer than either of them had planned, or wanted, to get to the Blizzard of 2014. They were lucky to make it back with nothing worse than a ton of stress and a load of bad memories. I was just happy to have them home.