In Buffalo, finger-pointing and mounting criticism over storm response
By Michael D. Regan, Lola Fadulu and Hurubie Meko
As the death toll from a powerful blizzard in western New York rose to near 40 on Wednesday, the Erie County executive, who has himself faced increasing criticism, lashed out at the mayor of Buffalo over his efforts to clear the city’s streets.
“The city, unfortunately, is always the last one to open,” Mark Poloncarz, the county executive, said at a press briefing. “It’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth.
“I don’t want to see this anymore — I’m sick of it — I’m a city resident myself,” Poloncarz said. “I know the mayor’s not thrilled to hear it, but I don’t care anymore. I want it done.”
Mayor Byron Brown, in a separate news conference, suggested that Poloncarz was struggling with the stress of the crisis. “People have been working around the clock since the beginning of this storm,” he said. “You know, some people handle that pressure a lot differently. Some keep working. Some keep trying to help the residents of our community, and some break down and lash out.”
Asked by a reporter if he believed he should resign over the public’s frustration and the loss of life from the storm, Brown defended his actions over the past week.
“I don’t think I should resign,” he said. “Again, these were historic blizzard conditions.”
The public finger-pointing was a dramatic development in a region where residents have been increasingly frustrated with the pace of storm response. The blizzard — which officials have characterized as one of the worst in recent memory — arrived Friday. The snow lasted roughly 36 hours and was accompanied by blinding winds. Six days later, residents were still attempting to dig out. Many had been trapped in their homes without heat, as utility crews struggled to fix substations encased in ice.
Late Wednesday, with many roads finally cleared, officials announced that they would lift a travel ban in Buffalo on Thursday, starting at 12:01 a.m. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that all major state highways in western New York and several critical local roads would reopen at the same time.
Poloncarz, too, has come under withering criticism from residents who believe he should have banned motorists from county roads sooner than he did. Hundreds of drivers became stranded on highways and smaller streets, beginning Friday, as whiteout conditions and heavy snowfall trapped them for hours. Of the 37 deaths attributed to the storm in Erie County, four victims were found in their cars.
“I feel like there’s still more that could have been done,” said Felicia Williamson, who has run a day care called My Precious Angels in Buffalo for more than 20 years and has been part of a grassroots rescue and recovery effort. “If you were going to create a driving ban, you could have created a driving ban on Thursday to make people stay home.”
Poloncarz acknowledged the controversy on Twitter on Wednesday. “As I said earlier today in response to whether the driving ban should have been instituted earlier, I do not know if it would have changed anything but it was my decision and I bear full responsibility,” he wrote. “As JFK said, ‘victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.’”
Of those who died in the storm, more than a dozen were found outside. Other deaths were attributed to delays by emergency personnel. Some people froze in their homes. Some died in their cars. Several suffered cardiac arrest while trying to shovel or use snowblowers. Officials have said they expect the death toll to rise as more victims are found and identified.
On Wednesday, hundreds of National Guard troops fanned out across the area. Officials said that their mission had largely shifted from rescue operations to checks of homes that lost power and to the enormous project of removing snow from streets.
As the temperature rose, four-person crews in about 25 Humvee vehicles checked on some of the hundreds of homes that still remained without power, officials said. Soldiers armed with shovels helped ease access for utility companies fixing downed lines.
“Any place that is out of power, we’re sending people to check on them,” said Eric Durr, director of public affairs at the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs.
About 14 green and tan Humvees, as well as larger supply and security trucks, were lined up just north of downtown Buffalo outside the Connecticut Street Armory. Downtown streets were largely cleared, with massive piles of snow pushed to the side of roadways.
Legions of front loaders, in some cases trailed by state police vehicles, made significant progress overnight Tuesday into Wednesday in residential areas.
Just before midnight Tuesday, several residents stood out front of their homes cheering and waving, shovels in hand, as a lone loader rolled down a side street pushing and scooping mounds of snow off to the side of the road, opening up a single lane to dig out their vehicles that had been trapped in a catacomb of snow for nearly five days.