Lessons learned locally from Buffalo blizzard response

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Forty-seven people died as a result of the Buffalo blizzard over Christmas and since then, those tasked with protecting the public in the event of a weather emergency have been trying to understand what could have been done differently. 

We all remember the heart-breaking images of cars and homes buried under feet of snow.  Emergency crews were unable to respond to hundreds of calls for help during the height of the blizzard and ultimately, 47 people lost their lives.

There seems to be a consensus that a travel ban should have been issued earlier.  When it comes to travel declarations here in Monroe County, Tim Henry, the Emergency Manager, is typically the one advising.

“We are not going to stop a snow squall that can go for 24 to 36 hours and put 48 to 52 inches in drifts to 56 feet. Our obligation is, if we think that’s going to happen what is our plan for that,” he tells News10NBC. 

The Monroe County Emergency Operations Center gets activated 12-24 hours before a major weather event.

“We have a private meteorologist who provides forecasts to us. If we believe it’s going to rise to the level that the county executive is going to have to make some declarations around public safety: could be transportation, the potential to inform school districts for closings, or any integrated emergency response. It becomes an all hands on deck approach,” Henry says.

The EOC is staffed with representatives from all local police and fire departments. The County, City and State DOTs, utility companies, the 911 center and a number county administrators when activated.  Each and every town within the county also has a seat at the table.

“The last storm affected Western Monroe County significantly differently than Eastern Monroe county. So, what we try not to do is make blankets statements about weather conditions, or response conditions,” Henry says.

Instead, the EOC gathers real-time updates through reports from crews on the ground, the 911 center and traffic cameras.

“We literally saw during the peak of some of those wind gusts, traffic lights come down in the middle of the intersection,” Henry explains, “So, Monroe County DOT working with State DOT marshaled resources there and if a power pole is involved, we’ve got someone from RG&E right here who can then get their crews on the phone.”

Another issue in Buffalo was that there were not enough tracked vehicles to get through the snow and to the people who were stranded.

“We are fortunate we have a lot of departments around here that have high tract vehicles that would be able to respond for some of that. So, we know where they are, we inventory those as part of our emergency preparedness plan if those need to be deployed,” Henry explains. The county can also call upon the state for additional resources if needed but is currently assessing its fleets to consider budgeting for additional resources in the future. 

During a weather event, there is an urgency to get information out to people as quickly as possible and typically that happens through the media and through county websites and social media. But the question is, is that enough?  In Buffalo, emergency responders don’t believe enough people knew about the travel bans that had been put into place and got caught in their cars. That area is now considering an emergency alert system of sorts.

“There’s a plethora of options for consumers out there to get their weather information right now,” Henry says, “The state is exploring options to integrate all of that, all of those different options into an emergency alerting system called IPause.”

If your phone is in an area where a travel ban or advisory has been posted, an alert would sound similar to the Amber Alert system.

“We’re going to watch and see what the federal government and state government, how those integrated software packages or solutions work out and then to the extent that we feel comfortable that one size fits all our answers, we’ll look at it and make resident recommendations to the county to potentially adopt it,” Henry says.