Five months after a blizzard devastated western New York, killing 31 residents of Buffalo, a report released on Friday cited multiple failures in the city’s response to the blinding snowfall that whipped through the region for three days, trapping many people in their cars, homes and workplaces.
Emergency warnings from city officials did not adequately convey how life-threatening the storm would be, the report said. City officials didn’t spread the word about the county’s travel ban for cars quickly enough and didn’t adequately stress the dangers of walking outside. And as the storm raged on, coordination between city, county and state officials became strained.
The more than 100-page study by a team of researchers at New York University dissected the city’s actions before, during and after the blizzard, pinpointing failures and offering recommendations. The report was requested by the mayor, Byron Brown, in the days after the storm as residents voiced frustration at what they said was a slow and inadequate response.
“You could write a whole book about this storm,” said Sarah Kaufman, interim director at the N.Y.U. Rudin Center for Transportation and the lead researcher.
Residents, many of whom spent the early weeks of 2023 recuperating from the storm and mourning loved ones who died in it, have said that the warnings from the city weren’t strong enough to dissuade people from taking chances on the roads or for employers to cancel work on the day the storm began.
The city’s response did not take into account the economic disparities that have existed in Buffalo for decades, they said. Those inequities meant, for instance, that many low-income residents could not afford to stock up on extra food before the blizzard, and as a result, risked driving or even walking out into the snow to get supplies for Christmas dinner.
At the time, Mr. Brown insisted that his administration had taken every action it could have to prepare residents for the storm and respond to their needs once it struck.
“I don’t put out messages lightly,” he said, pointing to his warnings in the days before that residents should get what they need ahead of the storm’s start — from Christmas gifts to medicine and food.
But the report’s findings echoed many of the community’s frustrations.
The snow itself wasn’t the main issue for a region accustomed to fierce winter weather, the researchers said. But a deadly confluence of snowfall with winds that reached as much as 80 miles per hour and lasted 37 hours straight, creating snowdrifts as high as 15 feet, made the blizzard “uniquely challenging,” they wrote.
It was the longest snowstorm below an elevation of 5,000 feet in U.S. history, according to the report. And the timing over the Christmas holiday, when many people were traveling and doing last-minute shopping, made it difficult to keep people inside.
“In a lot of ways it was a perfect storm,” Ms. Kaufman said.
Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo instituted road closures 14 times ahead of storms, Ms. Kaufman said. But Gov. Kathy Hochul has let local municipalities keep greater decision-making power, the report said, which may have led to a “wait-and-see” approach.
The city relied heavily on television and radio announcements, as well as its text messaging system, called BUFFALERT, which about 16 percent of the city’s residents were enrolled in, the report found.
As the storm gained power on Dec. 23, the city’s emergency response services quickly became overwhelmed. Over 1,100 emergency calls accumulated during the storm, according to the report.
Many of the emergency workers who responded quickly became stuck in the snow themselves as they ventured out into whiteout conditions with zero visibility. And as cars kept getting stuck in the roads, responders had a greater maze to navigate.
Simultaneously, key service areas, including the city’s Department of Public Works depot, lost power and heat, as did two of the warming shelters throughout the city.
About 20,000 homes and facilities lost power during the storm, some for up to four days. Although the impact of the blizzard was felt across the city, those in vulnerable communities felt it more keenly, the report found.
Researchers could not find data to confirm claims from community leaders that neighborhoods with more poor and Black residents were the last to be plowed. But they did find 311 call data showing residents of the predominantly Black area of east Buffalo called “more frequently and over more days to request street plowing services than the rest of the city.”
The highest number of 911 calls also came from District E, a neighborhood in the city’s east, they found. “Throughout the entire storm, calls from District E had longer response times,” the report said. Two of the three power substations that failed were in east Buffalo, and power outages appear to have occurred frequently in the area.
About 65 percent of Buffalo residents who died in the storm were Black, in a city where Black people make up just 33 percent of the population. Forty-two percent were over 65.
Amid the chaos, there were also “bright spots,” Ms. Kaufman said.
Buffalo’s Department of Public Works “had their ducks in a row” and was able to quickly increase the amount of equipment available, she said. The city started the storm with 41 plow trucks and 19 high lifts, but had to quickly scale up — with outside help and existing contracts — to a get a total of 600 snow removal vehicles on the roads to handle the 52 total inches of snowfall.
The city’s Police Department, with assistance from the Department of Public Works, rescued 65 people stuck in the storm using high lifts, before blizzard conditions made operations unfeasible, the report said. The Division of Community Services housed 65 people for about five days.
And the city’s 311 system “was exceptionally tuned in to neighborhood needs and had built up relationships with neighborhoods proactively,” Ms. Kaufman said.
The researchers suggested that the city take several steps before next winter: building communications systems that can quickly convey the importance of not driving during storms, improving the Department of Public Works’s facilities, and establishing and fully staffing a Traffic Management Center that could be used for everyday operations and emergencies.
“Emergency preparedness is difficult because if you do it well, nobody notices,” Ms. Kaufman said. “And if you don’t, that’s when there’s an outcry.”
Mr. Brown said in a news conference on Friday that the city had already begun implementing some of the report’s recommendations, including the purchase of “additional snow fighting equipment” and the creation of new positions, such as a fleet manager and an emergency operations manager.
Mr. Brown said he had created a storm response task force of 20 people from city, county and state government agencies that would help make the changes.
“One of the most important lessons is communication and making sure the information about a storm coming gets to the community,” the mayor said.
“But beyond that, making sure that the guidance that is put out by the government on how people can stay safe in extreme weather is also communicated,” he said.
At the same time, Mr. Brown noted the importance of public confidence, stating that “there were some people that did not take the notifications seriously enough.”
Overall, the report did a good job of describing what happened before, during, and after the storm, said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., a professor of urban studies at the University at Buffalo who was not involved in producing it.
But he said that the report had its flaws, namely that “it’s a report that kind of pats the mayor on the back by saying that they made mistakes, but in the end they were heroic and did a great job and you’re cautioned not to see that report as critical of the administration.”
Dr. Taylor Jr. said the report, which was more descriptive than analytic, left unanswered several critical questions, “like what was the cause of these failures, these cascading failures?” He attributed that failure to the city, saying it “did not have a disaster plan.”
The lack of such a plan was “an extraordinarily grievous offense because since 1976, Buffalo has had more than eight storms that have reached the level of disaster,” he said.
“From all of those experiences, nothing was learned,” he added.
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