BUFFALO, N.Y. — Eight feet up in his cab, Billy Orr Jr. spots the enemy - a five- foot pile of snow that has dared to reside on his street.
As the plow hits the snow, the truck bucks and the steering wheel jerks. But in a few seconds, another small sector of Buffalo's roads is once more open for parking. For the rest of his shift, Mr. Orr will push tons more of the white stuff off the street - a Sisyphean task he and the other city drivers have become increasingly weary of doing.
"Back in September or October, you kind of get the urge to move some snow, but now we wish it was summer," he says as he maneuvers the big truck through a narrow street.
Orr and 90 other men are Buffalo's front-line defense against winter. They are part of the nation's unsung army of civil servants who arrive to fill sandbags when flood waters are rampaging or a hurricane has knocked out power supplies. In the case of Buffalo, since the end of November, a blizzard-hardened group has been battling nature for 16 mind-numbing hours a day, seven days a week in an effort to keep the streets open.
"These guys are really burnt out - they've been busting it for the city," says Hank Drzazga, acting chief dispatcher.
All this hard work is necessary because Old Man Winter had dumped enough snow on Buffalo by Christmas to bury Shaquille O'Neal standing up. Through last Friday, the city had received 108.2 inches of snow, compared with a normal 93.6 inches for an entire season. Buffalo broke its snow-speed record, with 100 inches falling by Jan. 4, and it snowed for 24 consecutive days, Buffalo's second-longest streak. "It's been an amazing winter," marvels Tony Ansuini, a weather forecaster for the National Weather Service in Buffalo.
Because of the city's location on the eastern end of Lake Erie, a lot of snow is normal as arctic winds pick up relatively warm moist air off the lake and convert it to snow. Meteorologists call it "the lake effect."
That's exactly what happened on the afternoon of Nov. 20. Around 1 p.m., the snow started falling at the rate of three to four inches an hour, while winds gusted to gale-force velocity.
Meredith McDowell, a student at D'Youville College, remembers the day well. She left East Aurora, a suburb, under blue skies. As she drove into the storm, traffic came to a standstill. "I ended up in the car for 20 hours," she recalls. "I was lucky I had a full tank of gas and warm shoes."
But all those cars on the road made it a nightmare for Orr and the other plow drivers. There were so many cars abandoned or stalled on the road, it took him 2-1/2 hours just to go around the block. The storm made the nightly newscasts.
Despite the fact the city has already spent its snow-removal budget and run through its supply of salt, Mayor Anthony Masiello is upbeat.
"We're doing well - the spirit is there, the resilience is there," he says.
That is certainly true at Creative Concepts of WNY Ltd., an advertising agency in East Aurora. For the holidays, the agency's CEO, Susan Augustine Bartholomew, gave her staff "snow survival kits" that included a fold-up shovel, hand warmers, and de-icer.
She sent clients a CD-Rom that showed her staff, wielding giant candy canes, attacking "a Grinch" in a 20-foot snowpile next to the parking lot. "If this is winter, there should be snow," she says cheerily.
In fact, Mark Halter, president of Kissing Bridge Corp., is hoping for still more of the white stuff. His cost of operations is down, while revenues are up 40 percent. Why? Kissing Bridge is a ski operation not far from Buffalo. "You can talk about marketing budgets and coupons, but there is no advertising like snow everywhere," he says from a cozy restaurant at the base of the lift.
However, not everyone is so enthusiastic. At West Falls, Ilene Errington is up on a ladder trying to get some of the accumulation off her roof.
All around the area, houses have long icicles hanging from their gutters. "It can leak right through the walls and ceilings," says her neighbor Dorothy Doty.
Scraping ice off roofs or pushing it out of driveways has kept independent plow-contractor Frank Pannullo clocking in the hours. He admits to being glad for a respite last week when it stopped snowing for a few days. "I'm running out of places to put the snow," he says. "I would have moved it onto the front lawns if I had known it was going to be so bad."
Of course, bad is kind of relative in Buffalo. After the November blizzard, Orr and two other plows drove down to Lake Erie to open a stretch of road called The Boulevard. It took the three plows 5-1/2 hours to cut through 12-foot high drifts.
This is the kind of expertise that comes from experience and leads the mayor to brag, "We probably handle these difficulties better than most other parts of the country. We are open for business."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society