Baltimore's biggest is routine for Buffalo


BUFFALO, N.Y. - The relationship between residents here and their city's weather is much like one between relatives.

You can belittle a cousin, but you defend her against others.

"They're a little sensitive here about what people say," said weatherman Mike Randall, who has been giving his forecasts outside for 13 years at WKBW-TV. "If you're from Buffalo, you can complain and criticize the weather. As soon as somebody else does it, you want to jump on them."

It's not easy being the unofficial Snow Capital of the United States. But the past week has provided some chuckles for Buffalonians. As Baltimore continued digging out from its deepest-ever snowstorm, the people in Buffalo enjoyed the nicest day of their young year.

Temperatures hit 38 degrees, and brown grass peeked through the white blanket on some sun-exposed inclines south of the city.

"I could live in Maryland," said letter carrier Andre Wiggins, 40. "That stuff you got. That would be nothing to me."

One big difference

Buffalo and Baltimore have a lot in common.

They're both industrial, waterfront cities struggling to find their niche in a post-industrial society. Both have shrinking Bethlehem Steel plants. Both have a mix of ethnicities, many lifelong residents and, seemingly, a church on every corner. And both are sports cities familiar with heartbreak. Baltimore loses its teams. Buffalo loses big games - it's home to the only franchise to lose four consecutive Super Bowls.

But there is one inescapable difference between the two. In Buffalo, snow is part of the culture.

Sure, there are temperature differences between the cities. The February average low temperature in Buffalo is 19 degrees. In Baltimore, it's 26 degrees, according to the National Climatic Data Center. But the real difference is snow. Baltimore averages 21.8 inches a year. Buffalo gets 97.

To an extent, Buffalonians embrace it. They stutter when asked what their city would be like without snow.

"Cincinnati?" guessed weatherman Randall.

The snow fuels the ski resorts south of the city. It creates fields for snowmobiling.

For ice fisherman Scott Bugula, 34, it provides an ideal base for setting up a heated fishing hut atop frozen Lake Erie and a perfect backdrop for spotting deer while hunting.

For his friend, it provides a good way to meet women.

Patrick Swartz, 34, a laid-off welder, said he spotted a motorist stuck in a snowbank last month on his way to the casino near Niagara Falls.

"Hey, she's pretty good looking," he said. "Let's pull over and help her out."

He did, but he's still working on getting a date.

For Quincy and Cody, 34-year-old Ann Kelly's two yellow Labs, snow offers frolicking during her lunchtime.

"They love it," said Kelly, a state government worker. "They love to roll in it. In the summer they're always tired. In the winter, they can't get enough."

For the Buffalo Bills, the professional football team, snow provides home-field advantage.

"One of the times people would pray for snow," said 56-year-old retired Frontier High School teacher Neil Infante, "is when the Miami Dolphins come to town."

Reason to celebrate

For the entire city, snow provides a reason to celebrate. During the annual Olmsted Winterfest in February, participants play croquet, softball and football and rugby in expansive Delaware Park, the jewel of the city's park system. For softball, they use orange balls and bases. For football they use cones for yard lines. For croquet, they plowed the field.

But snow is too small for small talk.

"It's something that's ever-present," lawyer Hillary Green, 30, said while sipping coffee at Liberty Street Roastery downtown, "so it's not really an exciting topic of conversation, unless it's good powder."

In Buffalo, they also prepare for the snow.

Though Buffalo has less than half the population of Baltimore (293,000 to 651,000, according to the 2000 census), it has a bigger snow-removal budget - $1.8 million compared with Baltimore's $1.5 million.

It also has plowing plans in which residents park on alternate sides of the street so the entire road can be cleared. Though the city has already achieved its typical annual snowfall of 97 inches of snow this winter, schools have only closed twice.

There is no specific monument to snow. That's the entire city, residents said.

Lake-fueled snow

The so-called "lake effect" causes about 60 percent of the city's snow, meteorologist Tom Niziol of the National Weather Service in Buffalo.

Cold air crosses the warmer water of Lake Erie. It absorbs moisture, forming clouds that dump snow on Buffalo. Niziol explained it as Mother Nature sticking a hose in the lake and pointing the nozzle wherever the wind is blowing.

There are places in the United States - even nearby Syracuse, N.Y. - that get more snow, but no place combines snow and population quite like this city in western New York.

Most people are like Joe Dolski, a 74-year-old part-time worker at the city bus station who carries a shovel and half a bag of rock salt in his truck.

"You never know if you might get stuck," he said.

Despite Dolski's shovel, on several memorable occasions snow has shut down the city, halting cars and school buses on the highways.

There was the great blizzard of 1977. It marked the first time a snowstorm rendered a city a federal disaster area. At the Buffalo Zoo, snow drifted high enough that three reindeer walked over their fence and wandered through the city. In that storm, a national image was born.

There was the November 2000 storm during which 25 inches fell in eight hours - after adults had arrived at work and children at school. That was the day friends made 20-mile roundtrip runs to keep bread and milk at Mike Austin's three-aisle lakefront grocery store 10 miles south of the city.

There was also the December 2001 storm that dumped nearly 7 feet in four days. About 50 people slept at the landmark Anchor Bar, the birthplace of the Buffalo chicken wing. Owner Ivano Toscani had to turn off the bar taps at 1 a.m. because the stranded motorists were getting rowdy.

The worst snow can do is force residents into the many bars and restaurants. Over and over residents said snow isn't the worst of the problems here.

Ask about their problems and they will speak first about climbing tax rates and a city that continues to lose jobs and population at a rapid flow. (In 1950 Buffalo had twice its current population and was one of the country's 15 largest cities.) Even when it comes to weather, snow isn't the biggest concern.

"I love actual snowfall," said Green, the lawyer and Brooklyn native. "When it's snowing, it's not at that point where it's too cold for snow."

Pride shows

Despite the troubles, there's an unassuming pride the residents demonstrate by initiating handshakes with their visitors.

Both the lack of arrogance and the pride can be linked to snow.

Lawyers - often known for being among the fanciest dressers in big cities - don't wear dress shoes nearly half the year in Buffalo's courtrooms, said attorney Bob Stephenson, 56. Practicality is king.

The pride is what comes after the storms. Following the 2000 storm, the city awarded plaques to snowmobilers who rescued motorists.

This week, Buffalonians have several messages for their counterparts in Baltimore:

"Good luck," said Dolski.

"Layer up and enjoy it," said Buffalo city firefighter Jeff Arnone. "Drive slow."

"If you drive a Camaro and it snows that much," said substitute teacher Stan Collesano, "walk."

But weatherman Randall has a message for Buffalo: It's supposed to sleet today and snow the next four days.

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