By Hannah Brock
Author Timothy Kneeland was 14 years old when snow piled 20 to 30 feet high over four days in his small town outside of Buffalo, New York.
The Great Lakes’ snow belt brought havoc to the Buffalo area on Jan. 28, 1977. The storm was the first to be declared a federal emergency disaster declaration for snow.
More than 40 years later, Kneeland documented the experience and how it impacted public policy with his book “Declaring Disaster: Buffalo’s Blizzard of ‘77 and the Creation of FEMA” (Syracuse University Press, $24.95).
A teen then, Kneeland recalls how his experience was different than that of adults during the snowstorm.
“Kids experienced the blizzard far differently than adults,” Kneeland said. “It was time off of school. It was exciting, you know, all of this snow to play in.”
Since there were no cars on the road, Kneeland and his friends used light poles to guide them when they went out for pizza in the middle of the blinding blizzard, he said.
Like Kneeland, everyone who lived through the blizzard remembers where they were and what they were doing, he said.
“Anybody 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 to handle snow that we take for granted, Kneeland said. He said he hopes those who read his book take away a new understanding about 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 depend on personal vehicles and roads that support their rubber tires, Kneeland said. But rubber tires lose their traction quickly and fail when bare pavement isn’t possible.
The Buffalo snow disaster was a pivotal point in public policy, Kneeland said. The storm happened during a time of increased reliance on salt to make icy roads manageable.
But salt causes environmental damage. And the reliance on cars and roads led to the lack of public transport which could be stable transportation during snowy conditions..
“We created this bare pavement policy, which the public loves, and then their appetite just increases,” Kneeland said.
But dependence on the bare pavement policy makes people more vulnerable to a snow crisis, Kneeland said.
It’s the kind of thing that continues today, he said. Prior to the pandemic, buzz had started about restoring a declining public transport system. But the pandemic scared people away from it, he said.
Public policy rarely stays separate from political considerations, Kneeland said.
“I hope people walk away going, ‘Holy cow, presidents really manipulate disaster declarations to help get votes,’” Kneeland said. “You should be aware that there is a kind of gerrymandered electoral politics in terms of who gets a disaster declaration and who doesn’t.”
Kneeland began working on the book in around 2011, which led him on a path to discovering mobility as a social science study. When the pandemic forced most work to go online, Kneeland said his book benefited because he had time to think and digest the material.
The best part of studying a disaster is finding the right information, Kneeland said.
“It’s these moments, these epiphanies, where your gut tells you something’s going on but you can’t prove it,” he said. “And then you get that piece of evidence. That is very exciting.”
Kneeland said he hopes to leave readers wondering if the way we deal with snow is sustainable.