BATAVIA — First it rained. Then it froze. And then came the winds.
As the traffic accidents, power outages and closures began piling up Friday, the state Thruway Authority issued a single, blunt piece of advice: “STAY OFF THE ROADS.”
It proved wise.
The blizzard meteorologists predicted was just as bad as they said as a brutal storm hit Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. The alerts and closures arrived almost too fast to tally as the region largely shut down.
As of Friday evening, travel bans were in effect in Genesee, Orleans and Erie counties, while a “no unnecessary travel” advisory had been issued for Wyoming County. All traffic was banned on the Thruway from Exit 46 in Henrietta west to the Pennsylvania border.
Multiple road closures and accidents were reported in Genesee and Orleans counties in particular. A state of emergency was declared in Genesee County.
“For your safety and the safety of first responders and highway snow removal personnel this holiday weekend, please stay off the roads until conditions improve,” said Sheriff William Sheron Jr. in a news release.
Last-minute shopping trips — whether for Christmas gifts or storm supplies — were likewise impossible in some parts of the area. Walmart in Batavia closed at 2 p.m. and Tops Friendly Markets closed all stores until 6 a.m. Monday in Genesee, Orleans, Wyoming, Erie and Niagara counties.
Temperatures which had been in the 30s Friday morning dropped quickly to the single digits by afternoon. Although snow totals were so far light, the sheer scouring winds caused whiteouts which made driving impossible in some locations.
The National Weather Service reported that a location near Lackawanna saw a 79 mph wind gust at 10:10 a.m., the highest recorded Friday.
Several other locations in Western New York saw gusts top 70 mph, including a 71 mph gust at 1:30 p.m. in Warsaw.
In Genesee County, the Weather Service reported a 66 mph gust in Batavia at 12:50 p.m., 56 mph in Batavia at 12:54 p.m., and 54 mph in the town of Alabama at 10:25 a.m.
A peak gust of 54 mph was recorded near Medina at 9:40 a.m. In Livingston County, York saw a 53 mph gust about 9:55 a.m.
The observed temperature in Batavia was 9 degrees as of 3 p.m. with windshields frozen over and car doors sometimes impossible to open — the rain, followed by the freeze, had essentially sealed them shut.
How extreme was it?
Route 63 and Veterans Memorial Drive in Batavia — usually normal city driving for most — were closed due to bad weather conditions, among other closures. United Memorial Medical Center issued an advisory that the hospital and its Emergency Department remained open.
But nobody beyond first emergency responders, snowplows and similar crews was supposed to be on area highways.
STATE OF EMERGENCY
With ice, flooding, snow and freezing temperatures in the forecast for the weekend, a statewide state of emergency took effect at 6 a.m. Friday.
There was a flash freeze, Gov. Kathy Hochul noted in a Friday afternoon briefing. The National Weather Service says in a flash freeze, wet roads can quickly turn icy as temperatures dip below freezing.
“It won’t thaw out for at least 24 hours,” Hochul said. “This is what makes the roads so treacherous. The rain comes down, There’s barely enough time between the rain and the icing for our snowplows and crews to be able to salt the roads. That creates incredibly hazardous conditions.”
The focus, the governor said Friday afternoon, was on Western New York.
“We are seeing dangerous, hazardous, life-threatening high winds, blinding snow storms, in real time, hitting Western New York at this very moment,” Hochul said. “In preparation for what we saw was coming and has arrived, is the declaration of emergency — getting people off the roads,” she said.
Thursday’s driving ban for commercial vehicles was expanded, in areas such as Erie County, to all roads.
“Some of the roads, we have hard closures on Route 219, 400, 290, 190 … ban on commercial traffic on the Peace Bridge,” Hochul said. “The roads are freezing. Your tires cannot handle this. That lends itself to great possibility of pileups. They can be dangerous, people can get stranded. We’ve already had a jackknifed truck on the Thruway (west of Pembroke). What that means is the rest of the traffic that are behind it are paralyzed.”
This is when it can be threatening for individuals, especially those who didn’t make preparations, Hochul said.
“If you were going to be on the roads or you had to be on the roads, this was when you make sure that you’ve got your own — sandbags, kitty litter, whatever you need to put under your tires to help you get out,” she said. “Flashlights, food, water, blankets. This is how you need to travel in the winter in New York state. Hopefully, people heeded that warning, but there is a possibility of motorists being stranded, which is why our state police are deployed and watching out for anyone who might need their help.”
The flash freeze and the icy roads are not going anywhere soon, she said.
“This is going to be an event that’s going to continue through the weekend. Wind chills are going to be absolutely bone-chilling,” she said.
Early Friday afternoon, there were over 100,000 power outages that crews were trying to restore as quickly as possible, the governor said.
“That’s why we brought in utility crews from all over, other parts of the country to beef up our forces. We had over 7,000 utility crews out there to put the power back on,” she said. “A limb comes down. It takes the power lines on the ground. It is dangerous, even for the utility crews, to approach that in a blinding snowstorm.”
For that reason, power restoration wouldn’t be immediate, the governor said.
“That is why we’re asking people to be safe at home, but I know there could be some very cold circumstances, where people don’t have the power they need to heat themselves, keep the refrigerator on, keep the stove on. It’s going to be dangerous,” she said.
The governor said her message for New Yorkers was simple.
“This is a life-threatening, dangerous event,” she said. “Do not travel until the roads are reopened and you know it’s safe. The lives of yourselves and your loved ones come first.
“This storm will go away,” she continued. “At the end of it, we’re doing cleanup. We want to make sure that everyone is safe, that they heeded our warnings and were not stranded on roads, did not have a devastating circumstance at home because of an inside generator or people using fireplaces in a way that is not smart.”
Includes reporting by Ben Beagle, Brian Quinn and Matt Surtel.