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(BUFFALO, NY) — After a snowstorm killed 39 people in New York’s Erie County, the city of Buffalo announced that New York University would prepare a “follow-up” on the region’s response to the storm, according to the mayor by Buffalo, Bryon Brown.
Brown said NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service will review storm preparation, response and recovery to outline best practices for other major cities and provide feedback to Buffalo.
“The City of Buffalo is committed to learning from this storm and making further improvements in how we respond to future extreme winter snowstorms,” Brown wrote in a statement.
The deadly snowstorm devastated the region, killing at least 39 people, forcing residents to stay off the roads for nearly a week and cutting off residents from emergency services at the height of the storm.
“There is no guarantee that they will be able to respond immediately in a life-threatening emergency situation,” Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said at a Dec. 24 news conference, adding that the hardest-hit areas had no emergency services at all .
At the time of the press conference, two-thirds of the emergency vehicles were stuck in the snow.
When the New York National Guard, including military police, moved to Buffalo to help with the salvage effort, many residents were left to their own devices and their communities.
“No one would come,” said Buffalo resident Tayron Knight as he explained how he got stuck on Niagara Falls Boulevard. “I’ve called the police many times – the police told me I was on a waiting list where they couldn’t escort anyone out.”
Another resident, Eddie Porter, explained how he was stuck on the street for 28 hours during the storm. His calls to the police went unanswered, he said. He noted that he called the police on December 23 and finally heard back on December 29.
“I thought it was over the way it would be; Have you ever felt like you’re going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it?” Porter asked in an emotional interview with ABC News.
Rather than being rescued by police, Porter was rescued by William Kless, a local resident who spent days rescuing an estimated fifty residents on his snowmobile.
“If he wasn’t there, I don’t know what I would do,” Porter said.
In an interview with ABC News, Kless said he ended up helping residents get to emergency shelters, transporting dogs and cats, hauling supplies and even helping a man get essential dialysis treatments after he was stuck in his car for 17 hours was. In person, through social media or through calls to the police, Kless learned about community needs and offered door-to-door assistance, he said.
“There have been so many calls that emergency services have been canceled, you know, there are so many people who are left helpless and don’t know when they can get help,” Kless said.
Kless added that he communicated with the Buffalo Police Department when their vehicles were unable to get to a location safely.
“It was like a search and rescue,” he said. “Buffalo police got involved because they couldn’t go out on the streets.”
During a Dec. 24 news conference, Poloncarz pointed to the lack of vehicle mobility as a problem because the county, city and state did not have snowmobiles and relied on traditional National Guard emergency vehicles and Humvees.
Knight said he was eventually rescued by a friend, after which he began working with friends and family to coordinate rescues in the absence of emergency services.
“We started helping everyone in the city of Buffalo, as many people as possible,” Knight said. “We had our numbers posted up, so if someone was trapped or had no power or needed an urgent emergency, [if] They needed help that couldn’t get help from the city of Buffalo, they could call us.”
Knight estimated they received hundreds of calls to the point where they had to prioritize responses based on the highest priority emergencies.
Looking back on their experiences of the storm, Kless, Knight and Porter expressed problems with the city’s response.
“We didn’t see any paramedics at all, no police, no firefighters, no emergency response teams at all,” Kless said. “It was literally they didn’t come out until the day after when the storm calmed down and everything calmed down.”
Porter added that he was frustrated by the lack of emergency response in some Buffalo communities and believed the city had “dropped the ball” for the East Side, a largely African-American area that saw frequent casualties from the storm.
“To be clear, that was one of the reasons it was so tragic,” Porter said
Knight said he believes not only should Buffalo have been better prepared, but that the city could have saved lives had it worked together.
“They knew days beforehand that everything was going to happen, they were warned and they knew how bad the storm was going to be,” he said. “They should have had the right staff on hand.”
At one point, Poloncarz publicly called out Buffalo for his “embarrassing” reaction before finally apologizing for his statements.
“Storm after storm after storm after storm, unfortunately the city is the last one to open. And that shouldn’t be the case,” he said. “It’s embarrassing to tell the truth.”
He added that Erie County has taken over operations for a third of the city.
Residents said they experienced traumatic effects from the storm, an unprecedented death toll and feelings of regret at what could have been done, regardless of who was to blame.
“Most of this could have been prevented in terms of deaths,” Knight said.
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