BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo's snow-removal fleet was no match for the historic Christmas week blizzard that left 31 people dead in the city, and officials fell short in issuing warnings and providing shelter, according to a report released Friday.
The 175-page review of the city's response by New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service found shortcomings in snow-removal resources, utilities and communications as hurricane-force winds and whiteout conditions raged for 37 hours, trapping people in freezing homes and cars.
“Rescue vehicles got stuck in the snow or frozen to the ground, rescuers became disoriented and lost, emergency vehicles couldn’t get through, and motorists got stranded,” according to the report, which said the blizzard lasted longer than any prior storm below 5,000 feet of elevation in continental U.S. history.
A total of 46 people died across Erie County, which is home to Buffalo.
Mayor Byron Brown commissioned the report amid questions about why, in a region known for frequent and heavy snowstorms, this one was so devastating.
The city has since begun purchasing more snow equipment and created new positions to oversee resources and emergency operations, Brown said.
“The loss of life that we saw wasn't based on equipment,” Brown said at a news conference Friday. “We think it was based on communication.”
The report, led by researcher Sarah Kaufman, recommended using social media and other means to warn residents of future dangers after finding that officials relied too heavily on television and radio announcements that didn't reach households without those devices. Only 16% of city residents are enrolled in the BUFFALERT text messaging alert system, it found.
The storm also highlighted longstanding equity concerns in the upstate city where 28% of people live in poverty, according to the report: Black residents make up just a third of the population of Buffalo and 14% in Erie County, yet they accounted for about two-thirds of the storm deaths in the city and more than half at the county level.
“Many residents who were not in a financial position to stock up ahead of time ventured out mid-storm for food and medicines,” the report said. “In some neighborhoods, acquiring food was even more challenging because grocery stores are not evenly distributed throughout the city.”
“Furthermore, two of the three National Grid power substations that failed were located in Buffalo’s predominantly-Black East Side, and power outages appeared to occur frequently in those neighborhoods,” it said.
In all, 20,000 customers and city facilities including firehouses and the Department of Public Works garage lost power and heat for up to four days.
The report attributed seven deaths in Erie County to emergency calls that went unanswered due to a backlog, as well as unplowed streets and routes blocked by stranded drivers who were either unaware of or ignored travel bans that were inadequately conveyed.
“Although New York’s prior Governor Andrew Cuomo had historically decreed road closures through executive order during his tenure, current Gov. Kathy Hochul, who took office in August 2021, has permitted greater local decision-making around road closures," the report said. “This likely led to a `wait-and-see' approach leading up to the blizzard that may have contributed to belated road closures by the county, later announced by the city.”
The report said the blizzard cost the city $10.2 million in operations and recovery.
Before next winter, the researchers said, Buffalo should develop an extreme event management plan beyond the existing snow plan and establish a “trigger event,” such as a rate of snowfall per hour or wind chill factor, that would set it into motion.
“Interview findings suggest that the city snow plan for this blizzard," the report said, "was not substantially different from that for a typical, standard snow event.”