(BUFFALO, N.Y.) — After a blizzard left 39 people dead across New York’s Erie County, the City of Buffalo announced that New York University will conduct an “after-action report” about the region’s response to the storm, according to Buffalo Mayor Bryon Brown.
NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service will review the storm preparation, response and recovery to outline best practices for other major cities as well as offer Buffalo feedback, according to Brown.
“The City of Buffalo is resolved to learn from this storm and make additional improvements in how we respond to future extreme winter snow storms,” Brown wrote in a statement.
The deadly blizzard devastated the region, killing at least 39, requiring residents to stay off roads for nearly a week and cutting off residents from emergency services at the storm’s peak.
“There is no guarantee that in a life threatening emergency situation that they’re going to be able to respond immediately,” Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said at a Dec. 24 press conference, adding that the most affected areas would have no emergency services at all.
At the time of the press conference, two-thirds of emergency vehicles were stuck in the snow.
As the New York National Guard including military police moved to Buffalo to help with recovery efforts, many residents were left to fend for themselves and their communities.
“Nobody would come,” Buffalo resident Tayron Knight said when explaining how he got stuck on Niagara Falls Boulevard. “I called the police numerous times — the police told me I was on a waiting list that they couldn’t see nobody out.”
Another resident, Eddie Porter, explained how he got stuck on the road during the storm for 28 hours. His calls to police were left unanswered, he said. He noted that he called police on Dec. 23 and eventually heard back on Dec. 29.
“I thought it was over like it was going to be; You ever felt that you’re going to die and you can’t do nothing about it?” Porter asked in an emotional interview with ABC News.
Instead of being rescued by police, Porter was rescued by William Kless, a local resident who spent days saving an estimated fifty residents on his snowmobile.
“If he hadn’t been there, I don’t know what I was gonna do,” Porter said.
In an interview with ABC News, Kless said he ended up helping residents get to shelters, transporting dogs and cats, transporting supplies and even helping a man get critical dialysis treatments after being stuck in his car for 17 hours. In person, over social media or via calls with police, Kless learned information about the needs in the community and offered door-to-door to help, he said.
“There were so many calls that emergency services were canceled, you know, there’s so many people left helpless, not realizing when they’re going to be able to get help,” Kless said.
Kless added that he communicated with Buffalo police when they could not safely get to a location with their vehicles.
“It was just like a search and rescue,” he said. “The Buffalo police were involved because they couldn’t get down on the streets.”
During a Dec. 24 press conference, Poloncarz flagged the lack of vehicle mobility as an issue, since the county, city and state lacked snowmobiles and relied on traditional emergency response vehicles and National Guard Humvees.
Knight said he was eventually rescued by a friend, after which he began to work with friends and family to coordinate rescues in the absence of emergency services.
“We started going around helping everybody in the city of Buffalo, as many people as we can,” Knight said. “We had put up our numbers, so if anybody that was trapped, or had no power, or in desperate need of emergency, [if] they needed any help that wasn’t getting any help from the city of Buffalo, they could give us a call.”
Knight estimated they received hundreds of calls to the point where they had to triage responses based on the highest-priority emergencies.
Looking back on their experience with the storm, Kless, Knight and Porter each flagged issues with the city’s response.
“We didn’t see any paramedics, any police, any firemen, any emergency response teams at all,” Kless said. “It was literally they didn’t come out till about the day after once the storm and everything calmed down.”
Porter added that he was frustrated by the lack of emergency response in some communities within Buffalo, believing the city “dropped the ball” for the east side, a largely African American area, where casualties from the storm were common.
“Let’s be clear — that was one of the reasons it was so tragic,” Porter said
Knight said he believes that not only should Buffalo have been better prepared, but that the city could have saved lives if it had its act together.
“They knew everything was happening days beforehand, they were warned and knew how bad the storm was going to be,” he said. “They should have had the right personnel on hand.”
At one point, Poloncarz publicly called out Buffalo for its “embarrassing” response, before eventually apologizing for his statements.
“Storm after storm after storm after storm, the city unfortunately is the last one to be open. And that shouldn’t be the case,” he said. “It’s embarrassing to tell the truth.”
He added that Erie County took over operations for one third of the city.
Residents said they’ve been left with traumatic repercussions of the storm, an unprecedented death toll and feelings of regret about what could have been done, regardless of who was to blame.
“Most of this could have been prevented as far as fatalities,” Knight said.
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