Watchdog report cites multiple failures in Buffalo’s response to blizzard that killed 31 people
More than 50 inches of snow fell in just a few days in Buffalo in December.
(CNN) — Government officials failed on multiple accounts during the 2022 Buffalo blizzard that left 31 people dead, according to a watchdog report published Friday that detailed a plethora of problems from poor communication to residents to outdated and inoperable equipment.
The storm inundated Buffalo with more than 50 inches of snow from during Christmastime, caused snowdrifts of up to 15 feet and killed 15 Erie County residents in addition to the 31 people who died in Buffalo’s city limits. The storm included hurricane-force winds, whiteout conditions and wind chill temperatures that reached 30 degrees below zero.
During the four-day storm, Buffalo had a lack of proper equipment and the response disproportionately affected communities of color, according to the report by New York University researchers. A majority of the deaths in the city were Black residents, the report says.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown commissioned the report in an effort to “better prepare for future blizzards of this magnitude,” the report says.
“These were extreme weather conditions. Our city bore the brunt of this historic blizzard,” Brown said in a statement Friday. “In the days prior to the storm and after the storm, I’ve taken proactive steps to help ensure a better response for future storms.”
The nine university researchers and advisers said the report “aims to help the city move forward and make meaningful progress” and “should help place Buffalo in a better position to prepare, respond, and recover from major storms ahead.”
Researchers found Buffalo’s emergency equipment and facilities were insufficient and hampered the response.
“During the storm, fire trucks and ambulances were stuck in snow or frozen to the ground, exacerbating the emergency conditions that abounded,” the report states. “[E]ven with mutual aid assistance, the number of snow removal vehicles was still not sufficient to clear the roads throughout Buffalo for the better part of a week.”
Additionally, the report found the blizzard overwhelmed the city’s electric grid, leaving about 20,000 customers, including Buffalo fire houses and the city’s Department of Public Works garage, without power for the majority of the storm.
Officials didn’t properly notify residents of the severity of the storm
Buffalo’s storm response was also hampered by poor and delayed communications from government authorities, according to the researchers.
“Alerts concerning travel bans and stay-at-home orders were not sufficient to fully convey the situation’s urgency,” the report says. “In addition, only 16% of residents are enrolled in the City’s text messaging alert system, BUFFALERT. Although warming centers were available during the blizzard, providing power, heat and necessities, information concerning when and how to reach the centers was inadequate.”
Many drivers still took to the roads during the travel ban period and researchers found delayed road closures likely contributed to the number of stranded vehicles during the storm.
Poor communications extended to the county’s dispatch software, which could only view 25 calls at once, despite a backlog of 1,100 emergency calls during the storm, the report says.
“Seven people died in Erie County because of what officials have characterized as a delayed EMS response due to backlogged calls, unplowed streets, and stranded vehicles causing blockages,” the report states.
Good Samaritans help to push out a car along South Park Avenue on December 27, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. The historic winter storm Elliott dumped up to four feet of snow, leaving thousands without power and at least 28 confirmed dead in the city of Buffalo and the surrounding suburbs.
Disproportionate number of storm deaths were people of color
The storm response also made existing inequities within the city even worse. Of the 31 people who died, 20 were people of color, researchers found.
“Approximately two-thirds of the city’s residents who perished in the blizzard were Black, as were over half of those who died countywide. Yet Black residents make up only 33% of Buffalo’s and 14% of Erie County’s population,” the report states.
Many residents in the city left their homes in the middle of the storm for food and supplies because they did not have the money to stock up ahead of time. The report found two of the three power substations that failed were located in predominately Black neighborhoods.
Researchers also found that low-income areas felt the effect of unplowed streets the most. “Community leaders claimed that districts with more poor and Black residents were the last to receive plowing services, and shared photos and personal accounts that they viewed as supporting this claim,” according to the report.
Report makes recommendations for next storm, commends Buffalo for progress
Along with the critiques, the report also commended the city for various actions during the storm. Researchers highlighted how local officials were “able to maintain full staffing at the firehouses due to a well-developed reserve plan,” coordinated 600 snow removal vehicles within the county and state, and successfully responded to over 4,100 calls for help during the storm.
The report also applauded the Buffalo Police Department’s use of “unconventional resources” for rescues, which included scuba gear “as the material is more weather-resistant than typical police apparel.”
The report made several recommendations to help the city prepare for the next winter season:
• Build greater partnerships with state, federal and private sector officials
• Bolster the city’s Emergency Operations center, establish a full-time emergency manager in the city and secure more funding for a new Department of Public Works facility
• Improve emergency communications to residents and expand enrollment in the city’s text messaging system
• Announce travel bans earlier ahead of poor weather
• Develop an “extreme event management plan” in the city
The mayor’s office said Friday that New York state has allocated $10 million to the construction of a new public works facility. The mayor also said the city recently purchased more snow removal equipment and machines used to move stranded cars. Two new positions were also added: a Fleet Manager and an Emergency Operations Manager.
The mayor’s office also said new signs have been added in public locations to alert residents of impending weather conditions and resources available to help them. State funding has also been secured to “help low-income East Buffalo homeowners become current on water, sewer and tax bills, as well as assisting with home repair costs,” the news release said.
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