By Hannah Brock
Author Timothy Kneeland was 14 when snow accumulated 20 to 30 feet high in four days in his small town outside of Buffalo, New York.
The Great Lakes snowbelt wreaked havoc in the Buffalo area on January 28, 1977. The storm was the first to be declared a federal snow emergency declaration.
Over 40 years later, Kneeland documented the experience and its impact on public policy with his book “Declaring Disaster: Buffalo’s Blizzard of ’77 and the Creation of FEMA” (Syracuse University Press, $ 24.95).
As a teenager then, Kneeland remembers how his experience was different from that of adults during the snowstorm.
“Children experienced the blizzard much differently from adults,” Kneeland said. “It was school time. It was exciting, you know, all that snow to play in.
Since there were no cars on the road, Kneeland and his friends used street lights to guide them as they went out to eat pizza amid the blinding blizzard, he said.
Like Kneeland, anyone who lived through the blizzard remembers where they were and what they were doing, he said.
“Anyone of a certain age has a story,” he said.
As a professor of history and political science at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, Kneeland uses the blizzard to discuss disaster relief and public policy regarding weather and climate.
There are many policies for dealing with snow that we take for granted, Kneeland said. He said he hopes those who read his book will better understand the costs of snow management.
“Just think about how we try to shape our environment, and our environment shapes us instead,” Kneeland said.
Bare pavement policies in the snowiest states make residents dependent on personal vehicles and roads that support their rubber tires, Kneeland said. But rubber tires quickly lose traction and fail when bare pavement is not possible.
The Buffalo snow disaster was a turning point in public policy, Kneeland said. The storm occurred at a time of increased reliance on salt to make icy roads manageable.
But salt does damage the environment. And the dependence on cars and roads resulted in the lack of public transport, which could be stable transport in snowy weather.
“We created this bare pavement policy, which the public adores, and then their appetites only increase,” Kneeland said.
But reliance on the bare pavement policy makes people more vulnerable to a snowfall, Kneeland said.
It’s the kind of thing that continues today, he says. Before the pandemic, the buzz had started about restoring a declining public transport system. But the pandemic has scared people, he said.
Public policy is rarely kept separate from political considerations, Kneeland said.
“I hope people go away saying ‘Holy cow, presidents are really manipulating disaster declarations to help get votes,” Kneeland said. “You have to be aware that there is some sort of arbitrary election policy in terms of who gets a disaster declaration and who doesn’t. “
Kneeland began work on the book around 2011, which led him on the path to discovering mobility as a social science study. When the pandemic forced most of the work to go live, Kneeland said his book took advantage because he had time to reflect and digest the material.
The best part of studying a disaster is finding the right information, Kneeland said.
“It’s those moments, those epiphanies, where your gut tells you something is going on but you can’t prove it,” he said. “And then you get this piece of evidence. It’s very exciting.
Kneeland said he hopes to leave readers wondering if the way we deal with snow is sustainable.