On Wednesday, the death toll from the blizzard that hit the Buffalo area over the weekend was getting close to 40. It was the deadliest storm to hit the region in decades. After days without heat, homes are just now starting to warm up. Drivers are still trying to get back the cars they left behind.
In a place where people take pride in dealing with frequent and heavy snowfall, it’s natural to wonder why this storm was so wrong. Officials say they called for emergencies, warned people, and put crews and equipment in place well before the first storm winds. But a blizzard with winds close to hurricane force and more than 4 feet (1.2 meters) of snow made it hard for crews to do much, even when they got 911 calls.
On Wednesday, there were problems between the two top elected officials in the area. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz took a shot at how the snow was being cleared in Buffalo, the county seat, where a driving ban was still in effect, and the National Guard was helping enforce it. “The city is always the last one to open, which is too bad,” Poloncarz said. “To tell you the truth, it’s embarrassing.”
After the storm, many of the dead were found outside, while others were in snow-covered cars or homes that weren’t warm enough to keep them alive. Some of them got sick after shoveling snow. Some people died while waiting for help in a medical emergency.
A Look At The Reaction And What Happened Next
THE PREDICTION: Scientists knew it was going to happen. On December 19, four days before the storm hit, the National Weather Service issued a warning about a strong storm. Each day, the sign got more specific. On December 20, an important message said there would be a blizzard and a lot of snow.
By December 21, weather forecasters called it a “once in a lifetime” storm. A blizzard warning was posted on Thursday to go into effect at 7 a.m. Friday. It said there would be heavy snow, high winds, windchills of -10 to -25 degrees (-23 to -32 degrees Celsius), and “difficult to impossible travel” through Christmas weekend.
Preparations And Response
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said on Thursday that there was going to be “a potentially life-threatening storm,” so the city would be in a state of emergency when the storm hit the following day. Schools, churches, and offices, including government offices in Erie County and the two counties next to it, Niagara and Chautauqua, shut down.
Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency for the whole state on Thursday. She said that state equipment and people were ready to help, and the state Thruway Authority, which is in charge of the interstate highways that connect Buffalo to other major cities in the state, said that commercial vehicles would not be allowed on a stretch of road in the area starting at 6 a.m. Friday.
Erie County Executive Poloncarz said at a public briefing, “We strongly suggest that private businesses close on Friday and Saturday.” He used a slideshow to show the forecast, blizzard conditions, and the dangers of frostbite and hypothermia.
By Friday, the county had gone from a travel advisory to a ban, which critics said was too late for employees who had been told to go to work. Poloncarz later noted that the plan was to let third-shift workers go home, but things got worse faster than expected.
Still, some people went out. One of them was Sean Reisch, a 41-year-old salesman from the suburb of Cheektowaga. He came to regret going to get milk and bread on Friday afternoon. “When I pulled onto one of our main streets, it was so foggy that you couldn’t see anything,” he said.
When he got to the store, it was about to close, and he got stuck in the parking lot. Someone gave him a shovel to get his Nissan Sentra, full of gifts for his young children, out of the mud. He just barely made it home. To avoid snow drifts, he stuck his head out the window in a cold wind that “took your breath away.” He finally fell into his house, dazed.
“All night long, I kept telling my wife, ‘I don’t think you realize how lucky I am to be here.’ How lucky! “I can’t believe I got home after all that!”
It’s not surprising that getting people to listen to warnings is hard. But experts say that the stakes are higher because climate change is worsening all kinds of weather events worldwide. “People tend to get used to things… “Well, I’ve always lived here. I was in the worst snowstorm.
Craig Fugate, who was in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Obama was president, said, “I know what I’m doing.” “I think we’re going to have a hard time with this because of extreme weather… We see things more prominent than we’ve seen before and more significant than what we know.
Fugate brought up the number of people who died during Hurricane Ian in Lee County, Florida, in the fall, as well as the criticism the county got for giving a mandatory evacuation order just one day before the storm hit instead of doing it with the other counties.
Since the blizzard hit on the last shopping day before Christmas Eve, many employees felt pressured to go to work, with some citing the lack of a driving ban. “I’ll take it if there are complaints that it wasn’t done right,” Poloncarz said Wednesday.
Dan Neaverth Jr., in charge of emergency services for Erie County, said he had to stand his ground to keep his own family from running last-minute holiday errands in the storm, which is what many of the stranded people were probably doing.
“How this happened, right before a holiday weekend,” he said, “I think that had a huge effect on people wanting and feeling that need, but not everyone had a father who said, “Absolutely not, under no circumstances should you go out.”
Some Buffalo residents, about 27% of whom live in poverty, didn’t like being told to “stock up” on food and medicine before the storm because they thought it was unrealistic.
After volunteer snowmobile operators and emergency responders from outside agencies sent people and equipment, some people questioned whether the area had enough specialized equipment to deal with the increasing number of extreme weather events. Poloncarz said on Wednesday that the city’s storm operations should be taken over by the county, which has more money and other resources.
As members of the National Guard went door-to-door Wednesday to check on people’s health, a spokesperson for the Guard, Eric Durr, answered complaints that members did not respond to people’s sometimes desperate pleas on social media for help when they were stuck in cars, freezing in homes without power, or having medical emergencies.
Hochul said on Friday that 54 National Guard members and five vehicles would be sent to Erie County to help. At one point on Saturday, almost every fire truck in Buffalo and many police cars were stuck, and people in Buffalo and a few nearby suburbs were told that they couldn’t get help. Even plows had to be moved off the roads.
Durr said, “If the fire department isn’t there, the National Guard probably can’t get there.” On Saturday, Hochul said that there would be more troops. Her office said that by Tuesday, more than 500 members of the National Guard were in western New York.
In response to Poloncarz’s criticism of the city’s response, Brown said that the town took the brunt of the storm and that its narrow residential streets made things hard. He noted that Poloncarz, a Democrat like him, was “crumbling” under pressure. Brown said, “Some keep working, and some keep trying to help the people in our community, while others break down and lash out.” He said, “I don’t fight with anyone.”
After first responders couldn’t answer calls, Erie County Sheriff John Garcia was one of the people looking for ways to improve things. He said that “better equipment and more equipment” would help. He said, “We never thought it would be as bad as it was.” “So, do we have to get better? Absolutely.”
Fugate said that FEMA had learned a lot by talking to people who lived through hurricanes and asking them why they made the choices they did. “We can’t ask that of those who died, but we can ask that of those who got stuck,” he said. “We can ask, ‘What else did you need to know to make a better decision?’
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