Declaring Disaster: Buffalo’s Blizzard of ’77 and the Creation of FEMA

By Timothy W. Kneeland

Syracuse University Press, 2021; 221 pages; $24.95 (Paper)

When the National Weather Service issued a severe storm warning at 10:45 A.M. on January 28, 1977, it was the first time that residents of Buffalo, New York had heard of the approaching blizzard. Less than an hour later, a nearly impenetrable cloud of white descended on the city. Gusts of seventy-five miles per hour drove snow and ice pellets eastward from Lake Erie. The windchill sank to sixty degrees below zero. Drifts quickly filled the streets, slowing traffic to a crawl, closing the airport, paralyzing snow removal efforts. By late afternoon, abandoned vehicles and downed power wires made travel impossible and stranded workers had to seek shelter in the nearest heated enclosures—offices, taverns, and department stores. It was “the most severe blizzard in Buffalo’s history,” and Buffalo is no stranger to snowstorms.
    The tempest raged, intermittently, most of the following week, while shivering residents hunkered down and utility crews labored to restore service. Firemen and emergency medical technicians found it difficult to reach citizens in need. Sporadic looting broke out around town. Three reindeer escaped from the zoo by climbing snowdrifts. Meanwhile, local officials, the governor of New York, and newly elected President Jimmy Carter struggled to mobilize aid while balancing the sometimes conflicting demands of politics. When the storm ended, twenty-nine lives had been lost, the reputation of the mayor had been permanently tarnished, and federal and local agencies had recognized the imperative to establish more aggressive emergency management procedures.  
    Had a storm of this magnitude occurred a century earlier, argues Nazareth College history professor Timothy Kneeland, Buffalo would not have suffered such grievous harm. The horse-drawn sleighs and urban trollies of the past found easier traction in snow, and though a major blizzard might have been disruptive, life in the urban center would have returned to normal much more quickly. But American cities, such as Buffalo, beginning in the early 1900s, had opted for “automobility,” encouraging the use of rubber-tired vehicles for both transit and commercial trucking to serve populations that were dispersing to the suburbs. Nothing moved after a blizzard until roads were plowed to bare pavement, aided by the liberal application of road salt, at great expense in both labor and tax money. By January 1977, in the midst of an especially harsh winter and following years of economic decline, Buffalo had already spent all its resources and could not have coped with the fallout of the storm without outside aid. On February 5, President Carter threw a  lifeline, designating nine counties in New York, including Buffalo, as a major disaster area, the first time a snowfall had triggered a federal disaster declaration. But it was not the last. The Federal Emergency Management Office was established the following year.  
    To residents of Buffalo, the 1977 blizzard is a lasting reminder to prepare for the worst. According to Kneeland, Buffalo is now “capable of handling snowstorms that would have paralyzed nearly any other city.” However, as climate change brings ever more weather extremes—such as the Texas freeze of winter 2021—there is still much to be learned from Kneeland’s perceptive case history.

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