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Roads, schools closed as big storm hits western NY

Tuesday, January 7, 2014
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BUFFALO — Roads and schools were closed and flights canceled across upstate New York on Tuesday as a blizzard slammed the western part of the state while dangerously cold temperatures gripped eastern areas from the Adirondacks to New York City.

Meteorologist Bill Hippert of the National Weather Service said the storm barreling in from the Midwest already had dumped an estimated 15 to 18 inches of snow in some areas of western New York by Tuesday morning, with winds gusting up to 50 mph along Lake Erie, making travel "difficult if not impossible." Up to 3 feet was expected in some areas around Buffalo and as much as 4 feet could fall near the eastern end of Lake Ontario by the time the storm eases up Wednesday, he said.

"This is an out-of-the-ordinary event, even for Buffalo," Hippert said. "It's been 20 years since we had blizzard warnings of this magnitude in this area."

A 65-mile stretch of the Thruway from Buffalo to the Pennsylvania border was closed, with all entry ramps between Exit 55 and 61 shut down. Travel bans were in effect for much of western New York and areas north of Syracuse after Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday declared a state of emergency for 14 counties.

The weather service's blizzard warning for the city of Buffalo and surrounding areas was in place until 6 a.m. Wednesday.

About 15 truckers were waiting out the storm at Jim's Travel Plaza outside Buffalo, according to a waitress who said she was too busy serving the drivers to give her name. Richard Merbler, a driver for Ace Hardware based out of Saratoga County, said the wind was "blowing like the devil" in Niagara Falls on Tuesday morning, but conditions were even worse the night before along the Thruway between Rochester and Buffalo.

"Batavia last night wasn't fit for a dog when I was there. You couldn't see," Merbler told The Associated Press.

State police planned to escort 38 trucks from the Angola service area, where they were at a standstill, to the Pennsylvania border. The Thruway is also known as Interstate 90, which remained open in northwestern Pennsylvania.

The snow and wind weren't the only threats. Forecasters issued a flash flood warning for Niagara Falls and Grand Island after an ice jam formed in the upper Niagara River because of the high winds, causing water levels to rise.

Hockey fans, meanwhile, waited to hear whether Tuesday night's game between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes would go on, and whether they'd be allowed to drive to it if it did. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the Hurricanes had made it to Buffalo, but whether they played would be up to the NHL.

A 50-mile stretch of Interstate 81 north of Syracuse also was closed as heavy snow and winds gusting to 40 mph made driving hazardous. The state Department of Transportation said the highway was closed between Exit 31 at Brewerton to Exit 45 at Watertown.

DOT officials said there was no estimate on when the highway would reopen.

State police in Watertown said numerous vehicles were stuck along local roads, with troopers and sheriff's deputies working with tow truck drivers to remove the stranded drivers.

Hundreds of schools from the state's southwestern corner to the Hudson Valley were closed because of the weather, most due to the blizzard conditions in western areas but others because of temperatures in the single digits and wind chills well below zero.

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