EXPLAINER: How blizzard stunned even winter-wise Buffalo
Published Wednesday, December 28, 2022 | 20:35
Updated 0 milliseconds ago
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) – The toll from the weekend storm that battered the Buffalo area was approaching 40 dead Wednesday in the region’s deadliest storm in generations. Houses are only starting to heat up after days without heat. Drivers are still claiming the cars they abandoned.
In a region that prides itself on being able to handle frequent and heavy snowfall, the natural question is: Why was this storm so paralyzing?
Officials note that they declared emergencies, warned residents and positioned crews and equipment long before the storm’s first winds blew. But the ferocity of a storm packing near-hurricane winds and more than 4 feet (1.2 meters) of snow severely limited what crews could do, even to respond to 911 calls.
On Wednesday, tensions emerged between the region’s two top elected officials, with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz hijacking snow removal efforts at the county seat in Buffalo, where a driving ban remained in effect and Guard troops National helped to implement it.
“The city, unfortunately, is always the last to open,” said Poloncarz. “It’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth.”
After the storm, many of the dead were found outside, and others were in snow-covered vehicles and unheated homes. Some were hit after clearing snow. Others died while waiting for help during a medical crisis.
A look at the response and consequences:
The weathermen saw it coming. Four days before the severe weather arrived, the National Weather Service on December 19 warned of a powerful storm and repeated the warning in increasing detail each day. An emergency advisory on December 20 warned of blizzard conditions and heavy snow. By December 21, forecasters called it a “once in a generation” storm. On Thursday, a storm warning was posted to take effect at 7 a.m. Friday, describing heavy snow, strong winds, wind gusts of minus 10 to 25 degrees (minus 23 to 32 below Celsius ) and the “difficult to impossible journey” over the Christmas weekend.
PREPARATION AND RESPONSE
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, saying “a potentially life-threatening storm” was coming, announced Thursday that the city would be under a state of emergency once the storm arrived the next morning. School, church and office closures, including government offices in Erie and neighboring Niagara and Chautauqua counties, spilled over.
Gov. Kathy Hochul expanded the state of emergency Thursday and said state equipment and personnel were on standby, and the State Thruway Authority — which oversees the interstate highways that connect Buffalo to other major cities around the country — announced that commercial vehicles would be banned for a stretch in the area at 6 a.m. Friday.
“We highly recommend that private businesses close Friday and Saturday,” Erie County Executive Poloncarz said at a public briefing, using a slide show to illustrate the forecast, storm conditions and the dangers of frostbite and hypothermia.
By Friday, the county upgraded a travel advisory to a ban — too late, critics said, for employees who were instructed to go to work. Poloncarz said later that the intention was to allow third-shift workers to return home, that conditions worsened faster than expected.
Some people came out anyway. Among them was Sean Reisch, a 41-year-old salesman from suburban Cheektowaga, who regretted the decision to buy milk and bread Friday afternoon.
“As I left on one of our main roads, it was like extremely whiteout conditions to the point where you couldn’t see anything,” he said.
The store was closing when he arrived, and when he got stuck in the parking lot, someone lent him a shovel to dig out his Nissan Sentra, loaded with gifts for his young children.
He barely made it home, sticking his head out the window in a “breathtakingly cold” wind to avoid the slips. Finally he entered his house, stunned.
“I kept telling my wife all night, ‘I don’t think you understand how lucky I am to be here.’ How lucky? I can’t believe I made it home through all of this.”
THE STORM VETERANS
Not surprisingly, getting people to heed the warnings is a challenge. But with climate change intensifying all kinds of global weather events, experts say, the stakes are higher.
“People tend to normalize … “Well, I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve been through the worst storm. I know what I’m doing,” said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Obama administration. “That’s something I think we’re going to really struggle with extreme weather… We’re seeing the events that are surpassing our past experiences and surpassing our understanding.”
Fugate noted Hurricane Ian’s death toll in Lee County, Florida, in the fall and the criticism the county faced for issuing a mandatory evacuation order just one day before the storm hit, choosing to wait while surrounding counties published their own.
With the storm arriving on the last shopping day before Christmas Eve, many employees, some citing the lack of a driving ban, said they felt pressured to go to work.
“If there’s criticism that it’s not done right, I’ll accept it,” Poloncarz responded Wednesday.
Erie County Emergency Services Commissioner Dan Neaverth Jr. said he had to put his foot down to keep his family members from running last-minute vacation errands in the storm, something many of those stranded were likely doing.
“The way it fell, right where it did, going into a holiday weekend,” he said, “I think it had a tremendous impact on people who wanted and felt that need. … but not everyone had the benefit of a father who said, ‘Absolutely not, under no circumstances should you go out’.”
Some Buffalo residents, about 27% of whom live in poverty, asked for instructions to “load up” on food and medicine ahead of the storm, calling it unrealistic.
Others questioned whether the region has enough specialized equipment to handle the increasingly common extreme weather as volunteer snowmobile operators and emergency responders from outside agencies sent in people and equipment. Poloncarz suggested Wednesday that the county, with more money and other resources, should take over the city’s future storm operations.
As National Guard members knocked on doors Wednesday performing wellness checks, Guard spokesman Eric Durr addressed complaints that members did not respond to the sometimes desperate pleas that flooded social media from people stuck in cars, freezing in homes without power or suffering from medical emergencies.
Hochul had said Friday that 54 National Guard members and five vehicles would be deployed to Erie County to help.
At one point Saturday, nearly every fire truck in Buffalo was grounded, along with numerous police vehicles, and residents of Buffalo and several suburbs were told emergency services were unavailable. Even the plows were pulled from the roads.
“If the fire department isn’t there, there’s a good chance the National Guard won’t get there,” Durr said.
On Saturday, Hochul announced additional troops. As of Tuesday, more than 500 National Guard members were in western New York, her office said.
Responding to Poloncarz’s criticism of the city’s response, Brown said the city bore the brunt of the storm and that its narrow residential streets posed challenges. He suggested that Poloncarz, a fellow Democrat, is “breaking down” from the stress.
“Some continue to work, some continue to try to help the residents of our community,” Brown said, “and some break down and attack.”
“I have no quarrel,” he said.
Erie County Sheriff John Garcia was among those looking for ways to improve as first responders struggled to respond to calls, saying “better equipment, more equipment” would help.
“We never thought it would be as bad as it was,” he said. “So do we need to improve? Absolutely.”
Fugate said FEMA has taken advantage of talking with hurricane survivors to ask why they made the decisions they did.
“We can’t ask it from those who lost their lives, but we can ask it from the people who were trapped,” he said. “We can ask the questions: What more information do you need to make a better decision?”
Associated Press reporter Heather Hollingsworth contributed from Mission, Kansas.