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Buried in snow, Buffalo begins to dig out

BUFFALO, New York (CNN) -- Getting a break from record snowfall that has buried the upstate New York city since Christmas Eve, residents of the Buffalo area began to dig out of their homes and businesses Saturday.

More than 83 inches of snow have fallen this month -- all but an inch since Monday. That's about 90 percent of the average snowfall Buffalo usually gets for the entire season. By Saturday, the snow had compacted to about 44 inches on the ground.

The city's previous record, set in December 1985, was 68.4 inches, according to the National Weather Service

While only a few more inches are expected this weekend, strong winds in the next 24 hours may hamper cleanup efforts.

State of emergency

CNN's Holly Firfer wades into the drifts to report on the extreme snowfall in Buffalo, New York (December 28)

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On the Scene: Buffalo suffers 'Erie' effects 
Buffalo's top 10 snowfalls since 1890, in inches, during a 24-hour period:
1. 37.9 - Dec. 9-10, 1995
2. 35.4 - Dec. 27-28, 2001
3. 25.3 - Jan. 10-11, 1982
4. 25.2 - Dec. 24-25, 2001
5. 24.9 - Nov. 20-21, 2000
6. 24.3 - Dec. 15-16, 1945
7. 20.1 - Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 1979
8. 19.9 - Nov. 28-29, 1955
9. 19.4 - Feb. 27-28, 1984
10. 19 - Nov. 30, 1976 (tie)
10. 19 - March 17, 1936 (tie)
Source: National Weather Service

On Friday, New York Gov. George Pataki declared a state of emergency in Buffalo, calling in the National Guard to help uncover the city. Residents are not allowed to drive their vehicles until emergency workers can clear many of the side streets.

"It's slow going," said Erie County Emergency Services Commissioner Mike Stevens. "As far as serious snowfall in and around Buffalo, we'll be cleaning up for four or five days. When we see sufficient progress on the side streets, we'll lift the ban."

Most people are able to walk or drive snowmobiles to supermarkets, many of which have reopened. Emergency workers are taking supplies to residents in remote areas, but Stevens noted "most folks know what winter's like here" and are prepared for the worst.

Buffalo's main driving arteries were largely cleared of snow Saturday, and City Hall and Buffalo Niagara International Airport were reopened, Stevens said.

The snow won't hamper New Year's Eve celebrations, which include a tour of the Olympic Torch.

"We're going to make sure we give the torch a good show," Stevens said, noting that the roads along the torch run have been cleared.

Buffalo's annual New Year's "ball drop" will be held as planned, he added.

"It might not be as widely attended as it was, but there will be some spirited people there," Stevens said.

Mayor Anthony Masiello continued to direct emergency operations from a relative's house near West Point, 270 miles east of Buffalo, where he and his family had gone to celebrate Christmas, and from which he has been trying without success to return since Thursday.

"Santa would have been happy to be in Buffalo," he said. "It's similar to the North Pole."

Masiello again will try to return to Buffalo on Saturday night, according to the Erie County Department of Emergency Services.

Heavy 'lake effect' snows

Snow in western New York around Christmas is not unusual, but "this is a little more than we expected," said Erie County Executive Joel Giambra.

Forecasters said one reason for the heavy snowfall is that the Great Lakes remain warm and unfrozen because of the warm fall, resulting in heavy "lake effect" snows.

"This is the mother of all 'lake-effect' snows," said Tom Niziol, scientific operations officer at the National Weather Service's forecast office in Buffalo. "It's like putting a hose in Lake Erie and sweeping the region with lots of snow."

Plows from nearby Rochester and Lewiston were aiding in the removal effort.

But the sheer quantity of the snow means plows cannot simply shove it to the side as they usually do. Instead, snow is loaded onto trucks and driven out of town, which slows the effort.

The snow fell so heavily -- up to 4 inches per hour -- that the plows had a tough time keeping up, said National Weather Service meteorologist Stan Levine, who lives five miles from the airport. Many of his coworkers were unable to make it to work, he said.

Meanwhile, the city is coping. The timing of the snowfall was fortuitous in that most people were off from work and schools were closed for the holidays. "We caught a break," Giambra said.

"It's not gridlock; we're not paralyzed," he said. "There's been no fatalities, no major incidents so far. We'll just keep praying that that's the case."


• Snow, ice leave at least 14 dead


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