BUFFALO, N.Y. – The toll from the weekend blizzard that hit the Buffalo area was approaching 40 deaths Wednesday from the region's deadliest storm in generations. Homes are only beginning to warm after days without heat. Drivers are still claiming cars they had 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 well before the first storm winds blew in. But the ferocity of a blizzard packing near-hurricane-force winds and more than 4 feet (1.2 meters) of snow severely limited what crews could do, even in responding to 911 calls.
On Wednesday, tensions surfaced between the region's two top elected officials, with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz swiping at snow-removal efforts in the county seat of Buffalo, where a driving ban remained in place and National Guard troops helped to enforce it.
“The city, unfortunately, is always the last one to open,” Poloncarz said. “It’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth.”
In the aftermath of the storm, many of the dead were found outside, and others were in snow-covered vehicles and unheated homes. Some were stricken after clearing snow. Others died while awaiting help during a medical crisis.
A look at the response and aftermath:
Meteorologists saw it coming. Four days before the arrival of bad weather, the National Weather Service on Dec. 19 warned of a powerful storm and repeated the warning with increasing detail each day. An urgent advisory on Dec. 20 warned of blizzard conditions and heavy snow. By Dec. 21, forecasters termed it a “once-in-a-generation” storm. On Thursday, a blizzard warning was posted to take effect at 7 a.m. Friday, describing heavy snow, high winds, windchills of minus 10 to 25 degrees (minus 23 to 32 below Celsius) and “difficult to impossible travel” through Christmas weekend.
PREPARATIONS 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. Closures of schools, churches and offices, including government offices in Erie and neighboring Niagara and Chautauqua counties, poured in.
Gov. Kathy Hochul expanded the state of emergency to the entire state Thursday and said state equipment and personnel were standing by, and the state Thruway Authority — which oversees the interstate highways linking Buffalo to other major cities statewide — announced commercial vehicles would be banned for a stretch in the area at 6 a.m. Friday.
“We highly recommend private businesses to close on Friday and Saturday,” Erie County Executive Poloncarz said at a public briefing, using a slideshow to illustrate the forecast, blizzard conditions, and 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 into work. Poloncarz said later the intent was to allow third-shift workers to get home, that conditions deteriorated more quickly than expected.
Some people ventured out anyway. Among them was Sean Reisch, a 41-year-old salesman from the suburb of Cheektowaga, who came to regret the decision to pick up milk and bread Friday afternoon.
“As I pulled on one of our main streets, it was like incredibly whiteout conditions to the point where you literally 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 presents for his young children.
He barely made it home, sticking his head out the window in a cold wind that “took your breath away" to dodge drifts. At last he stumbled into his house, stunned.
“I kept saying to my wife all night long, ’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 that.”
It's no surprise that getting people to heed warnings is a challenge. But with climate change intensifying all kinds of global weather events, according to experts, the stakes are higher.
“People tend to normalize ... 'Well, I’ve lived here all my life. I went through the worst blizzard. I know what I’m doing,'" said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Obama administration. "This is something I think we’re going to really wrestle with with extreme weather ... We’re seeing events that are exceeding our past experiences, and they’re exceeding our understanding.”
Fugate pointed to 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 posted theirs.
With the blizzard 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 wasn’t done right, I’ll take it,” Poloncarz responded Wednesday.
Erie County Emergency Services Commissioner Dan Neaverth Jr. said he had to put his foot down to keep his own family members from running last-minute holiday errands in the storm, something many of those stranded were likely doing.
“How this fell, exactly where it did, heading into a holiday weekend,” he said, “I think that that had a tremendous impact on people wanting and feeling that need. ... but not everybody had the benefit of a father who said, 'Absolutely not, under no circumstances should you go out.'"
Some residents of Buffalo, about 27% of whom live in poverty, bristled at instructions to “stock up” on food and medicine before the storm, calling it unrealistic.
Others questioned whether the region has enough specialized equipment to handle increasingly common extreme weather after volunteer snowmobile operators and emergency responders from outside agencies sent 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 conducting wellness checks, guard spokesperson Eric Durr addressed complaints members did not respond to the sometimes desperate pleas filling social media from people trapped in cars, freezing in homes without power or suffering medical emergencies.
Hochul had said Friday that 54 members of the National Guard and five vehicles would be deployed in Erie County to help.
At one point Saturday, almost every fire truck in Buffalo was stranded, along with numerous police vehicles, and residents of Buffalo and several suburbs were told emergency services were unavailable. Even plows were pulled from roads.
“If the fire department isn’t there, chances are the National Guard can’t get there," Durr said.
On Saturday, Hochul announced additional troops. By Tuesday, more than 500 National Guard members were in western New York, her office said.
Responding to Poloncarz's critique of the city's response, Brown said that the city bore the brunt of the storm and that its narrow residential streets posed challenges. He suggested Poloncarz, a fellow Democrat, was “crumbling” under stress.
“Some keep working, some keep trying to helping the residents of our community," Brown said, "and some break down and lash out.”
“I don’t have any feud,” he said.
Erie County Sheriff John Garcia was among those looking for ways to improve after first responders were prevented from answering calls, saying “better equipment, more equipment” would help.
“We never thought that it was going to be as bad as it was,” he said. “So do we have to get better? Absolutely.”
Fugate said FEMA has benefited from talking with survivors of hurricanes to ask why they made the decisions they did.
“We can't ask that of those who lost their lives, but we can people who were stranded,” he said. “We can ask the questions: What more information did you need to make a better decision?”
Associated Press reporter Heather Hollingsworth contributed from Mission, Kansas.