“White Death — The Blizzard of ’77” A Canadian-American survival classic by Erno Rossi, M.A.


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What Happened?

I was looking out my window of my lakeshore home on the morning of Friday, January 28, 1977. Through field glasses, I watched a flock of greater Canada geese feeding on the corn that I had spread for them on the frozen surface of Lake Erie, just a stone throw away. Suddenly the geese all collapsed on their breasts onto the ice facing into the breeze. They then pulled their feet up into their breast feathers. Twisting their necks backwards, they then tucked their bills and heads into their back feathers.

I looked out onto the frozen lake. I saw a wall of white as high as a mountain flowing across the ice toward the geese and my home. That wall of snow hit my house with hurricane force and almost shattered the bay windows. The blizzard of the century had arrived.

On the fourth and final day of the storm, I tucked my camera inside my parka and waited for a clearing in the blowing snow. I then crawled across the snow toward the geese. That photo ends the Canadian Experience on page 218.

Later on that fourth day, during another clearing in the storm, those same geese all stood up, strutted about, flapped their wings and then took flight toward the open water of the Niagara River. The blizzard of the millennium had ended.

Natural Disaster Strikes

On Friday, January 28, 1977 a natural disaster struck Canada and the United States. Southern portions of the province of Ontario and parts of western and northern New York State were besieged by the blizzard of the century and millennium. During this winter hurricane, the temperature plunged to near zero Fahrenheit as hurricane force winds roared across the frozen surface of Lake Erie. Temperature and wind combined to create a wind chill of 60 below zero. Visibility was also zero and remained there from 11:30 a.m on the 28th until 12:50 a.m on the 29th of January. The storm did not subside until February. Wind gusts over 50 miles per hour occurred each day with official peaks ranging between 69 and 73 miles per hour.

Ten Thousand Square Miles of Ice

Lake Erie has a surface area of ten thousand square miles. This water surface had frozen by December 14th, 1976 an early freezing record. Here formed a desert of ice that was flatter than any prairie or desert of sand. As hurricane force winds swept across the frozen lake, no natural barriers broke the force of the sweep so that the northeast shore areas felt the full blast of this natural disaster.

The deep snow that had built up on the surface of the lake had not melted during the cold month of January so that ten thousand square miles of snow powder blew inland from the frozen surface of Lake Erie and buried people in their cars and homes.

By the night of Friday, January 28, 1977, thousands of people were stranded in office buildings, schools, police stations, fire halls, bars, factories, cars, houses and in the homes of strangers. Most highways were impassable, train lines were blocked and airports were closed. Snow paralysis had set in during this unique winter hurricane.

Declaration of Emergency

On Saturday, January 29, 1977, American President Jimmy Carter issued a "declaration of emergency" for four western New York State counties, permitting government agencies to move in and help with rescue efforts under the authority of the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration. Later five additional counties, including two northern New York State counties were added. These counties by name are: Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Erie, Niagara, Orleans, Genesee, Wyoming, Jefferson and Lewis.

With international attention focused on this disaster, on Saturday February 5, 1977, President Carter declared the nine counties a "major disaster area", the first and last such declaration ever made for a snow emergency. This allowed more extensive federal relief, including direct reimbursement to local governments for snow removal expenses.

Checking the school bus for survivors.

Checking school bus for survivors.
Courtesy, St. Catharines Standard.

In Canada

Across the Canadian border, the Canadians were met with the same disaster, aggravated however by the presence of approximately 2000 students who were trapped for several days in urban and rural schools. Many of the young people had never been separated from their parents for a long period of time. The reaction of parents, teachers amd children is very interesting.

In response to the blizzard, the whole of the Regional Municipality of Niagara was placed in a state of emergency on January 29 and this remained in effect until February 2, 1977.

Learning from Weather Emergencies

We have a lot to learn from weather emergencies, and we should learn as much as possible from the Blizzard of '77. Cities should be especially careful that find themselves near the shore of a lake that has the potential for freezing. Inland areas as well would be wise to beware of the build up of snow powder, so beautiful and yet so dangerous when aroused by wind.

Friday January 28, 1977. Where were you on that day? What happened? That is the essence of this book. Lives, property and spirits were devastated for some survivors. For others, there was an exhilaration of having met and survived a unique natural disaster. Beginning on Friday January 28, 1977 and often running into the next week, the experience of survivors is captured. If there are lessons to be learned from the survival of others, here is your chance. It could happen again. It could happen to you. Beware of snowflakes!

$300 Million Pricetag

The pricetag on the Blizzard of '77 was about 300 million dollars.

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Updated: January 29, 2022