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Blizzard of ’77: Forty years on, locals still remember

Buried cars in New York. Image: National Weather Service/NOAA

Buried cars in New York. Image: National Weather Service/NOAA

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Friday, January 27, 2017, 4:14 PM - For kids, clambering up snow drifts while home from school in January isn’t out of the ordinary. Being able to touch your home’s eaves from the top of one such drift, however, definitely is.

Rob Paola was 14 years old when he and his brother had that somewhat unique experience, one highlight of the epic Blizzard of ‘77 that all but shut down parts of the Niagara region in a four-day onslaught of bitter cold, harsh winds and never-ending blowing snow.

“Everybody remembers that blizzard,” Paola told The Weather Network. “It was the worst storm anybody had ever experienced and I don’t think we’ve ever experienced anything since like that.”

On January 28, 1977, the first day of the ordeal, Paola walked to school in the morning in Welland, but when the blizzard struck late morning, he and other children were sent home. But though he and his brother made it home alright, conditions deteriorated so quickly that buses couldn’t make it in, leaving some children stranded at the school.

RELATED: How the monster storm took place

Paola's father, meanwhile, was unable to make the 11-kilometre drive home from the Inco nickel refinery in Port Colborne, only making it back two days later during a brief lull.

For many, driving was out of the question. Some cars in the plant parking lot had been so thoroughly blasted by the snow, engine compartments had been thoroughly clogged, keeping them from starting.

“The winds were that severe the blowing snow would get into anything,” Paola recalls.

It was a similar story everywhere in the region. Many in Welland and other communities, were all but prisoners in their homes for four days, as the winds continued to blow and the snow continued to pile up, leaving roads all but impassable and drifts engulfing homes, some reaching as high as the second storey.

“Officials had to warn people not to touch hydro lines, because drifts went up to the top of hydro poles,” Paola says. “You could walk up there and touch live hydro lines … that’s how severe the drifting was.”

Buried house in Tonawanda, New York. Image: Jeff Wurstner/Wikimedia Commons

Buried house in Tonawanda, New York. Image: Jeff Wurstner/Wikimedia Commons

For homes along the lakeshore, where the wind was blowing strongest, it was even worse, and Paola remembers seeing pictures of some whose front windows had blown in, leaving living rooms filled with snow.

The local radio station was in emergency broadcast mode for almost all of the event, keeping listeners updated and coordinating rescue efforts.

“They were basically the nerve centre to get, lets say, medical supplies to people who needed it,” Paola recalls. “People needed snowmobiles to get around. They became a lifeline for southern Niagara during that event.”

Despite these efforts, the storm was a deadly one. According to the Hamilton Spectator, at least two people died in the Niagara area, along with 29 across the border in the Buffalo area.

After the winds finally died down, cleanup began, but the process took days, with snow-clearing equipment having to be brought in from elsewhere, as the Niagara region was used to some of the mildest winters in Canada.

As for Paola himself, the raw power of the four-day storm left a mark on his teenage mind. He began keeping a weather diary, and by the time he’d left high school, he was on a path to becoming a meteorologist, remaining in the profession for more than 30 years.

“I remember being awestruck by how powerful the storm was and how man was no match for mother nature at her worst,” the told The Weather Network.

Did you live through this storm? Share your memories in the comments section below.

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