Scrutiny mounts over Buffalo’s response to deadly blizzard
Speaking at a daily news conference, Mark Poloncarz, the executive of Erie County, which includes Buffalo, blasted city leaders for failing to clear roads quickly and accused Mayor Byron W. Brown’s administration of being uncommitted to a coordinated local response. and state. Poloncarz said the county “took over” cleanup in one-third of Buffalo and had discussed with state officials the possibility of taking responsibility for all plowing within city limits during future major storms.
“We have a roll call of elected officials every morning and the city of Buffalo was not on it,” Poloncarz said. He added: “The mayor won’t be happy to hear about this but storm after storm after storm after storm the city is unfortunately the last to open and it shouldn’t be . . It’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth.”
Brown, speaking at a separate news conference minutes later, dismissed the allegations, pointing out that Buffalo was the area hardest hit by the historic storm. He said that Polocarz had expressed no concerns to him and insisted that there was “no quarrel” between the two.
“People have been working around the clock since this storm started,” Brown said. “Some people handle that pressure very differently. Some continue to work. Some continue to try to help the residents of our community, and some explode and attack.”
In an interview later Wednesday, Brown again denied the allegations. “We have the frustration, the fear, the anger,” he said. “But everything that could have been done before the storm and during the storm was done.”
The shifting of blame threatened to hamper coordination during the aftermath of the worst storm to hit the region since 1977 and drew fresh scrutiny of Brown, who has led the city for nearly 17 years. Brown was re-elected in 2021 to a fifth term as a write-in candidate, despite City Hall corruption scandals and complaints of mismanagement in a deeply impoverished city.
“Our city government is failing us,” said community organizer India Walton, a socialite who was the Democratic candidate for mayor. “There are diversions, gaslighting, excuses and that means 30 people have died as a result and someone has to be held accountable.”
Even in a region famously snowy, the storm had a devastating impact that experts and elected officials attributed to a combination of historic storm conditions, a lack of emergency management resources and the determination of some residents accustomed to extreme weather to carry on. their lives – especially in the days before Christmas.
And unlike past storms, which often hit smaller towns outside of Buffalo the hardest, this one surrounded the city, putting more people at risk, knocking out power to more homes and bustling streets filled with cars that ended up serving as roadblocks for emergency responders.
But questions about preparedness — including the timing of a travel ban that was issued during the Friday morning commute just minutes before 79 mph winds hit the area — have mounted as Buffalo digs out from under the snowfall. Brown said Friday that the city was “absolutely” capable of dealing with snow from a storm of this magnitude, but he also said the city’s “snow plan doesn’t address storms. It addresses normal snowfall. “
In an interview, Buffalo Common Council member Rasheed Wyatt said he “didn’t want to point fingers” but acknowledged the storm revealed a need to review the city’s plans. No changes were made after a major snowstorm in November, he noted.
“We have to learn some lessons from what happened,” Wyatt said, adding, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime storm. But I’m not going to put it all down to just that. There are things I can we could have done better.”
Asked why the travel ban was not issued earlier, Poloncarz said Officials weighed forecasts showing the storm’s belt wouldn’t hit until midday and the need for night-shift workers to be able to return home. “If anyone is to be blamed, you can blame me,” he said. “I’m the one who has to make the final call on behalf of the county.”
Officials said Buffalo’s driving ban was expected to remain in effect until at least Thursday morning, though they expressed concern that many residents were not listening to it, slowing cleanup efforts. City and county crews aimed to have at least one lane open on each road by Wednesday night, they said.
That timeline was of little comfort to Buffalo residents, who remained surrounded by snow nearly a week after the storm, frustrated by the inability to drive to buy groceries or medicine. In the LaSalle neighborhood of Buffalo’s East Side, streets were still barely passable Wednesday afternoon. Residents were shoveling already dense and heavy snow after a day of warmer temperatures.
Kazi Mohammad was using a snowblower on the driveway of a rental property blocked by a four-foot bank of snow dumped there by a front-end loader. Mohammad, a supervisor at a nonprofit organization, said he didn’t see any snow plowing on his street until late Tuesday.
“I feel like the city has always been unprepared for blizzards like this,” Mohammad said.
Up the road, Jesse and Nadine Mitchell cleared the snow around their car after digging their driveway. Trucks, SUVs and the occasional car made their way down a narrow path cut in the snow.
Nadine Mitchell, her voice rising as she expressed her displeasure with the government’s response, blamed both Brown and Gov. Kathy Hochul (D).
“For a week, they knew this storm was coming,” she said. “So why wouldn’t you already have the National Guard here?”
It’s always the poorest neighborhoods that get cleaned up last, Mitchell said — neighborhoods like hers.
“As a taxpayer, as a homeowner, how is it that we’re always the last to be taken out of hell?” she said.
With temperatures warming into the 40s, county officials said Wednesday they were now bracing for the possibility of snowmelt flooding, though they said it was unlikely to cause problems.
Authorities were also dealing with multiple reports of robberies, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said. Authorities arrested nine suspects on Tuesday, he said, describing stores where “shelves, cash registers, things have been absolutely destroyed. It is unnecessary. It’s disgusting, to be completely honest.”
At least 34 people in the county died in the storm, Poloncarz said, with 26 of them in Buffalo. Buffalo officials said 28 had died within city limits; it was unclear why these numbers differed.
More victims were likely to be found, officials warned. National Guard members began going out Wednesday, going door-to-door to check on residents in neighborhoods that lost power, Poloncarz said.
“We are afraid that there are individuals who may have died, including alone, or people who are not doing well in an institution, especially those who still do not have power,” said Poloncarz.
Among those who lost their lives was lifelong resident and retired truck driver William Clay. According to his sister, Sophia Clay, he took the threat of storms seriously, having seen firsthand how the weather in this city on the edge of Lake Erie can turn in an instant from cold and still to a blinding, furious and blizzard of snow. deadly.
Sophia Clay last spoke to her brother around midnight on Saturday morning – Christmas Eve – when she called to wish him a happy 56th birthday. “He seemed happy,” she said. “He told me he loved me and that he would see me soon.”
A short time later, the family believes, Clay set off on foot to walk to a nearby convenience store to pick up last-minute supplies. That night, a relative who arrived at Clay’s home found the house empty and alerted other family members.
Distraught, Sophia Clay posted a message on Facebook asking neighbors to look after her brother. Hours later, the family was notified of a photo circulating on social media of a man face down in the snow blocks from her brother’s home. She knew it was him: She recognized his coat.
Sophia Clay said she called Buffalo Police. “They said they were on their way,” she said. But hours later, the family were horrified to see new photos of the body still there. “Hour after hour after hour, he just laid there,” she said.
The family felt helpless. Driving was prohibited. With local officials less and less convinced that they would respond, Clay’s relatives began trying to find a way to go get his body themselves.
Clay’s body was finally found late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. The family has not yet been able to get to the medical examiner’s office to see the body in person, although his sister identified her brother from a photo of a tattoo on his arm.
“I think he got caught in the storm and got disoriented,” Sophia Clay said. “That’s the only thing I can think of because he knew how bad these storms can be. He knew how to be afraid.”
What is painful is that her brother was dressed for the elements. She confirmed through forensics that her brother was wearing a coat and layers. He was wearing his hat. “It wasn’t enough,” she said.
Brianna Sacks contributed reporting.