Skip to main content

Upstate N.Y. digs out after big storm shuts down major highway

By the CNN Wire Staff
Click to play
Snow strands drivers in Buffalo
  • NEW: Snow is falling at a half-inch per hour, down from 3 inches per hour
  • NEW: Some motorists were stranded on Interstate 90 for about 20 hours
  • Some hopped highway fences after being stuck for 16 hours, a witness says
  • Up to three feet of snow fell in some Buffalo-area locations over two days

(CNN) -- As the snow finally wound down, drivers and residents in and around Buffalo, New York, continued to dig out from a storm that dumped up to three feet of snow and shut down a major highway.

Some motorists spent as much as 20 hours stranded on Interstate 90, as emergency personnel worked to dig their vehicles out despite continued and concentrated precipitation and up to six-foot high drifts.

By around 8 p.m. Thursday, snow was falling at about a half-inch for hour, according to the National Weather Service. While still meddlesome, it paled compared to the 3-inch per hour rate late Wednesday as well as the intense, concentrated snow that continued through much of the day Thursday.

"Just too much in too short of a time," Bob Hill, who offered his plow to help, told CNN affiliate WVIB.

Drivers stranded on highway in the snow
Gallery: Heavy snow in Buffalo

Tractor-trailers and passenger cars were marooned on two nearby four-mile stretches of the interstate -- one eastbound and the other westbound. While there was some movement by Thursday evening, large parts of the road remain closed to new traffic and the highway authority said it had no estimate when the interstate would reopen.

Authorities used plows and all-terrain vehicles to clear the road and provide food, water and gas to those stuck, even busing stranded motorists to a senior center-turned-shelter in suburban Cheektowaga.

"We're still using ATVs that have police officers or [firefighters] operating them, inspecting to see if anyone needs any services," said New York State Police Capt. Michael Nigrelli. "We are seeing progress now, [and we're] hoping in the next few hours to see some breakthroughs."

Many area residents woke up Thursday morning to drifts as high as four to six feet that, in some cases, blocked doors and driveways. Shifting winds from an east-moving front combined with record-breaking warm water temperatures in Lake Erie to create the intense early December storm.

How does lake effect snow form?

D'Youville College's men's and women's basketball teams spent at least 24 hours on the road -- most all of it in a standstill on Interstate 90 -- on their trip back to Buffalo from games in Pennsylvania, reported WVIB.

Sam McMahon, who had been trapped on the interstate since 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, told CNN meteorologist Reynolds Wolf that while he has seen snow comparable to this, there is something unique about this storm.

"In terms of snowfall, I have seen snowfall like this before, but I have never been stuck in a situation like this on the thruway this extreme," he said.

The University of Buffalo student was heading home Wednesday evening and when he hit slow traffic. "By 9 o'clock, we were stopped," he said. "Since 9:30 last night, I haven't moved an inch."

Frank Rodriguez, 22, whose office backs to the clogged highway, said people -- including a few truck drivers, wearing only T-shirts as they waded through two-and-a-half feet of snow -- scaled fences all day to get food and warmth. Network Task Group, his telecommunications company, even brought out two ladders to help, he said, noting some motorists said by late afternoon that they'd been stuck for over 16 hours.

He said the interstate, which he can see from his workplace, was "completely dead" most of Thursday until small movement by late afternoon. Ironically, Rodriguez said his hometown of Grand Island, 11 miles north of Buffalo, had minimal snow.

"It was kind of weird -- it was almost like a blanket" covering some spots and not others a few miles away, Rodriguez said.

That disparity is common with lake-effect snow, with official advisories warning about rapidly changing conditions and noting that "the weather can vary from locally heavy snow in narrow bands to clear skies just a few miles away."

Several spots got hit hard by this week's storm, and consistently. National Weather Service spotters reported more than 32 inches in communities east and south by Thursday evening. Plus, temperatures just below freezing made for wet snow that forecasters cautioned "will bring down some tree limbs and produce scattered power outages."

Still, while packing a punch, the storm was hardly a record-setter: Over 76 inches of snow fell in Buffalo in late December 2001, including 35.4 inches in a single 24-hour period, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Despite the wintry conditions, the New York State Highway Authority noted that no injuries have been reported, though "as a precaution," an ambulance did take away one stranded motorist who used an oxygen tank.

"There have not been any serious accidents or injuries, and no one has been in serious harm," Nigrelli said.

The snow did die down late Thursday, and only flurries were forecast for Friday. Still, this being upstate New York, the National Weather Service is calling for a chance of snow showers every day through next Thursday.

CNN's Sean Morris, Angela Fritz and Greg Botelho contributed to this report