EXPLAINER: How the blizzard stunned even Buffalo in winter

BUFFALO, NY (AP) — The toll from the weekend blizzard that hit the Buffalo The region was nearing 40 deaths on Wednesday from the area’s deadliest storm in generations. Homes only begin to warm up after days without heating. Drivers are still claiming cars they had abandoned.

In a region that prides itself on being able to withstand frequent and heavy snowfalls, the natural question is: Why was this storm so crippling?

Officials note that they declared emergencies, warned residents and positioned crews and equipment long before the first storm winds blew. what the crews could do, even answering calls to 911.

On Wednesday, tensions surfaced between the region’s two top elected officials, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, sweeping away snow removal efforts in the Buffalo County seat, where a driving ban remained in place and National Guard troops helped enforce it.

“The city, unfortunately, is always the last to open,” Poloncarz said. “It’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth.”

In the aftermath of the storm, many dead were found outside, and others were in snow-covered vehicles and unheated homes. Some were hit after snow removal. Others died while waiting for help during a medical crisis.

An overview of the response and consequences:

THE FORECASTS

Meteorologists saw it coming. Four days before bad weather set in, the National Weather Service warned of a powerful storm on December 19 and repeated the warning in increasing detail each day. An urgent advisory on December 20 warned of blizzard conditions and heavy snowfall. On December 21, forecasters called it a “once in a generation” storm. On Thursday, a blizzard warning was issued to take effect at 7 a.m. Friday, describing heavy snowfall, high winds, wind chills of minus 10 to 25 degrees (minus 23 to 32 below Celsius) and “difficult to impossible journeys” over the Christmas weekend.

PREPARATIONS AND RESPONSE

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, declaring that “a life-threatening storm” was coming, announced on Thursday that the city would be in a state of emergency once the storm arrived the next morning. Closings of schools, churches and offices, including government offices in Erie and neighboring Niagara and Chautauqua counties, have poured in.

Governor Kathy Hochul extended the state of emergency statewide on Thursday and said state equipment and personnel were ready, and the state’s Thruway Authority – which oversees interstate highways connecting Buffalo to other major cities in the state – announced that commercial vehicles would be banned for a stretch in the area at 6 a.m. Friday.

“We strongly recommend that private businesses close Friday and Saturday,” Erie County Executive Poloncarz said during a public briefing, using a slideshow to illustrate forecasts, blizzard conditions and hazards. frostbite and hypothermia.

On Friday, the county turned a travel advisory into a ban — too late, critics say, for employees who were ordered to go to work. Poloncarz later said the intention was to allow third-shift workers to return home, as conditions deteriorated faster than expected.

Some people still ventured out. Among them was Sean Reisch, a 41-year-old salesman from suburban Cheektowaga, who came to regret the decision to pick up milk and bread on Friday afternoon.

“As I was shooting down one of our main streets it was like unbelievable 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 up his Nissan Sentra, laden 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 the drifts. Finally, he stumbled into his house, stunned.

“I kept saying to my wife all night, ‘I don’t think you understand how lucky I am to be here.’ What luck ? I can’t believe I made it home through all of this.

STORM VETERANS

It’s no surprise that getting people to heed the warnings is a challenge. But with climate change intensifying all sorts 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 blizzard. I know what I’m doing,'” said Agency administrator Craig Fugate federal emergency management under the Obama administration.”That’s something I think we’re really going to struggle with in extreme weather…We’re seeing events that are beyond our past experiences, and they’re beyond our comprehension.”

Fugate pointed to the death toll from Hurricane Ian in Lee County, Florida in the fall and the criticism the county faced for issuing a mandatory evacuation order just a day before the storm hits, choosing to wait while surrounding counties post theirs.

With the blizzard arriving on the last shopping day before Christmas Eve, many employees, some citing the lack of driving bans, said they felt compelled to go to work.

“If there are criticisms that it was not done properly, I will accept them,” Poloncarz replied on Wednesday.

HOLIDAYS

Erie County Emergency Services Commissioner Dan Neaverth Jr. said he had to put his foot down to prevent his own family members from running last-minute vacation errands in the storm, which many of those stuck were probably doing.

“How it fell, exactly where it happened, before a holiday weekend,” he said, “I think it had a huge impact on people who wanted and felt that need. …but not everyone has had the benefit of having a father who said, “Absolutely not, you must not go out under any circumstances.”

CRITICISM

Some Buffalo residents, about 27% of whom live in poverty, bristled at instructions to “stock up” on food and medicine ahead of the storm, calling them unrealistic.

Others questioned whether the area has enough specialized equipment to deal with increasingly common extreme weather conditions 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 support the city’s future storm operations.

As members of the National Guard knocked on doors Wednesday to conduct wellness checks, Guard spokesman Eric Durr issued complaints to members who failed to respond to the sometimes desperate appeals filling social media of people stuck in cars, frozen in homes without power, or suffering from medical emergencies.

Hochul said Friday that 54 National Guard members and five vehicles would be deployed to Erie County to help.

At one point Saturday, nearly all of Buffalo’s fire trucks were grounded, along with many police vehicles, and residents of Buffalo and several suburbs were notified that emergency services were unavailable. Even the plows have been taken off the roads.

“If the fire department isn’t there, chances are the National Guard won’t be able to get there,” Durr said.

On Saturday, Hochul announced additional troops. As of Tuesday, more than 500 members of the National Guard were in western New York, his office said.

POLITICAL IMPACTS

Responding to Poloncarz’s criticism of the city’s response, Brown said the city bore the brunt of the storm and its narrow residential streets posed challenges. He suggested Poloncarz, a fellow Democrat, was “collapsed” under the stress.

“Some keep working, some keep trying to help the residents of our community,” Brown said, “and some break down and go wild.”

“I have no quarrel,” he said.

THE FUTURE

Erie County Sheriff John Garcia was among those looking for ways to improve after first responders were blocked from responding to calls, saying ‘better gear, more gear’ would help .

“We never thought it was going to be as bad as it was,” he said. “So, do we need to improve? Absolutely.”

Fugate said FEMA has benefited from talking with hurricane survivors to ask them why they made the decisions they did.

“We can’t ask that of those who lost their lives, but we can ask that of the stranded people,” he said. “We can ask the questions: what additional information did you need to make a better decision? »

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Associated Press reporter Heather Hollingsworth contributed from Mission, Kansas.

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