Report: Communication failures left Buffalo unprepared for fatal blizzard
31 residents died in the Christmas 2022 storm that dumped over 50-inches of snow with hurricane-force winds
By Harold Mcneil
The Buffalo News
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Better public communication is Buffalo's most urgent issue when it comes to being more prepared for future extreme weather, but the city also has work to do on upgrading its infrastructure and utilities and in responding more equitably to emergencies such as the 2022 Christmas weekend blizzard that killed 31 city residents.
Those are a few of the main takeaways from a New York University analysis of the city's response to the devastating blizzard that dumped more than 50 inches of snow, brought hurricane-force winds and freezing temperatures and knocked out power and heat in thousands of city homes.
City officials on Friday released the 170-page report, "Lessons Learned from the Buffalo Blizzard," by NYU's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.
Lead researcher Sarah M. Kaufman said one of her research team's major findings was that the city's public communications with residents were not up to par and needed urgent improvement to prevent further devastation in a future emergency.
The city could have better shared its emergency messages with the public, perhaps working in concert with the county, Kaufman said in an interview. Alerting Buffalonians to the dangers of even walking outside during the blizzard was not properly conveyed, she said, while there was no clear explanation for what constituted an "essential worker."
The report urged the city to create one primary means of sharing emergency information that can be disseminated to many channels, from social media to traditional media to texts and emails. One avenue could be improving the city's buy-in to BuffAlert, the current emergency messaging service.
The lack of an emergency operations center downtown was another emphasis in the report.
"That hindered the storm response," Kaufman said.
The report also suggested working with private businesses to establish a business notification system and partnering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for more robust emergency notifications.
Among other highlights of the report were:
—Some sites designated as warming shelters ended up being inaccessible to the public during the blizzard. The report recommended that city officials identify at least one warming shelter per Common Council district, as well as develop a plan for equipping and staffing the facilities. Directions to the warming centers, along with travel times to get there, should be available to residents, Kaufman said. The warming centers should have independent power sources, she added.
—A recommendation to upgrade and purchase new police and fire equipment. City officials said they already have addressed the equipment issues. Mayor Byron W. Brown said the city began updating its physical equipment and investing in new Department of Public Works facilities. He said the city also is installing better signage for storm warnings in public places.
—A finding that the impacts of the blizzard hit hardest in Buffalo neighborhoods that endure persistent economic hardships and resource limitations.
Two-thirds of the people who died in Buffalo were people of color, a disproportionate number based on city demographics, the report found.
"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," the report added.
Kaufman said the equity issue was important, especially because "if you ask people to stay home, you need a way for them to stock up on supplies, such as food or diapers, that can last for four to five days." She suggested emergency supply boxes available through community services.
At a news conference Friday, Brown said the city has implemented several programs to address equity, which the report noted.
"So one of the things we have proposed from an equity standpoint is to provide resources to assist people with different bills to make sure that people are financially caught up, to make sure that people are not financially struggling," Brown said. "We've also provided resources to help people with home repairs, to help renters get caught up with rent. Some of those programs are going forward right now, as we speak."
City officials received heavy criticism for being ill-prepared in bracing for and responding to the storm, and Brown commissioned the study from an outside group as a way to determine what could have been done better. A nine-person team of researchers interviewed more than 30 stakeholders, including city and state government officials, emergency responders, utility providers and business owners.
The report did offer some praise for the city's response effort, including those by city police, firefighters and first responders who trudged, often on foot, through whiteout conditions for search and rescue operations.
"Throughout the City of Buffalo, emergency responders showed ingenuity in their rescue operations, finding creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable odds," the report said.
Even heroic efforts by the general public were noted.
"Buffalo's moniker, the 'City of Good Neighbors,' rang true throughout the storm event," the report said, referencing citizens who helped stranded motorists, checked on neighbors and shared food and other necessities.