NOWHERE TO GO — Pictured is a car in the Hamburg Village Square that was surrounded and covered with snow. Photo by Jessie Owen.
HAMBURG — Last week’s fierce winter storm qualified for official status as a blizzard, in the eyes of the National Weather Service. Hundreds of schools were closed and major roadways were shut down. It had been 20 years since a blizzard had been declared in Western New York.
The recent storm that hit Buffalo was part of a much larger system, dubbed a polar vortex.
A polar vortex is a large, swirling pool of extremely cold air located tens of thousands of feet in the atmosphere, according to Frank Giannasca, senior meteorologist with the Weather Channel. It ordinarily spins counterclockwise around the north and south poles.
Last week, it moved southward over a large part of the country, with as many as 140 million Americans affected. The Buffalo area endured wind gusts of about 50 mph, combined with daily doses of snow that reminded many residents of the infamous blizzard of ’77.
We made national news but, once again, for all the wrong reasons.
The polar vortex was hardly the first time our region has been part of a colossal, continental weather event. A severe storm with numerous names smashed into the Northeast, almost exactly 125 years ago.
In its Jan. 17, 1889, edition, The Amherst Bee reported on a tornado that hit western Pennsylvania. “A dispatch from Pittsburgh on Jan. 9 says that the storm that passed over the city and wrought such frightful destruction to life and property possessed every feature of a tornado,” the account read. “The thermometer fell 14 degrees. The chief catastrophe was the collapse of the building at Wood and Diamond streets. From the best information available, eight persons were killed outright or died in a short time, and 35 others were injured.”
Graphic images were concocted by the Frederick News. “The scenes on the street were awful. Dozens of policemen and firemen kept the mob back from the vicinity of the disaster, while others, covered with soot and dust, ran in and out of the wrecked building, carrying in tools and bringing out the victims as fast as they were recovered.”
In Harrisburg, the weather office’s anemometer blew away, to never be seen again.
Far to the east, the tornado slammed into Brooklyn. Accounts published in the Brooklyn Eagle were vivid and dramatic. “I was sitting at dinner with my family, when suddenly, we heard a sound as though a number of heavy trucks were coming down on the asphalt pavement on the street. One of my children evidently had a good view of the [oil tank] explosion from the rear windows [and] said, ‘Oh, Papa, the sun is burst,’” said Charles Teale, a member of the Brooklyn Board of Education.
“It was almost impossible to find a street in the western district of Brooklyn yesterday that did not show some trace of the cyclonic disturbance of Wednesday night,” wrote The New York Times.
Not even the whistle stop called Williamsville could escape the 1889 storm’s fury.
“During last week’s storm, the roof was blown entirely off Mr. Gregory Wick’s barn. Also, a smoke house was blown over at Mr. John Klein’s, 12 large apple trees were uprooted in Mr. George Haussauer’s orchard, the lower sash of a window in the stone schoolhouse was blown in, and a smoke stack and stones from one of the chimneys on the Catholic church were damaged,” The Bee reported.
Thanks to accurate forecasts sent out days ahead of last week’s weather event, people seemed more prepared, this time around. And my barn, smoke house, orchard, window sashes and chimney are fine.David Sherman can be reached at