For 14 hours in Buffalo, emergency services technician Phaleisha Balesteri sat inside her snow-covered ambulance without food or water, helplessly listening to her dispatchers to answer calls about people freezing, mothers and babies stranded in cars, oxygen tanks running out, and other first responders trapped trying to get to them. In front of her, four cars were askew in snow drifts, blocking the road.
And, as she began to fear that she even she may die there, she grew furious that Buffalo hadn’t acted sooner to prevent people from going out on the roads in the worst storm since 1977.
“I think a travel ban should have been put in place a lot earlier,” said Balesteri, an EMT with American Medical Response in Buffalo.
Erie County, which contains Buffalo, issued a travel ban shortly before 9 a.m. Friday, giving motorists only a 41-minute head’s up as many of them were driving to work. But the timing of the ban has become one of the flash points as western New York grapples with the aftermath of a storm that already taken the lives of 28 people in Erie County. Buffalo city spokesman Mike DeGeorge said more than half of the deaths occurred outside, a number involving people in their cars.
The historic devastation is, in large part, due to a collision of a historic blizzard, bad timing, a dearth of emergency management resources, and the immense difficulty of trying to force residents who are largely desensitized to severe weather to abandon much-needed jobs, as well as their holiday plans, according to interviews with lawmakers, community organizers and disaster experts.
The blizzard struck right before Christmas, when many already short-staffed government agencies were further trimmed down for the holiday. It also hit on a Friday — a critical payday for many people who live paycheck to paycheck (27 percent of the city population lives in poverty) — a day where many may have planned to buy gifts, food, or supplies before an especially cold Christmas.
“Most of the calls were people trapped in their cars,” Balesteri said. “We were doing everything in our power to get to them, but the truth is those people in stuck vehicles shouldn’t have been there and there will be many deaths because of that.”
Although county officials had been imploring people to stay home and for businesses to close, those were merely advisories. On Thursday, some residents were begging the top emergency official to enact a ban, with more than a dozen people across Facebook and Twitter posting and responding to County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s updates that they would still be forced to work given the mad rush of the holiday weekend.
Earlier that morning, “life-threatening conditions” and “dangerously strong winds” were encroaching on Buffalo, according to forecasts. In his news conference that morning, Poloncarz drove home how dangerous the blizzard was going to be. Only twice in his tenure had the National Weather Service listed a weather event as having “extreme impact,” he said. Six minutes after the ban went into effect, Poloncarz shared on Facebook that the U.S. National Weather Service Buffalo N.Y. recorded 72 and 79-mph winds in the area. Nearly 13,000 people had already lost power.
By Friday afternoon, Balesteri was one of a host of emergency responders who found themselves stranded alongside some of the terrified drivers they were trying to save. Ambulances could not get to some neighborhoods for more than 24 hours. Due to blinding snow and powerful gusts, plows were pulled off the roads, further isolating neighborhoods.
And unlike past severe weather events that usually hit the small towns south of Buffalo, this storm bore down on the city, putting many more people in harm’s way and paralyzing infrastructure.
Officials acknowledged that they assumed they were ready for this kind of weather. On Tuesday, Erie County Sheriff John Garcia said, that when they were told they were going to have a generational storm and heard terms such as “bomb cyclone,” he thought, “this is something that we are used to.”
But, he added, they were wrong. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said.
The blizzard also tested the emergency response resources of a region that has seen its already thin staffing, equipment and funds further whittled down by the pandemic. Last month, the state recorded a 10 percent drop in certified EMT and paramedic staffing due to low wages and burnout. The problem is worse in rural areas, like parts of Erie County, where many responders are volunteers.
But first responders on the ground in Buffalo said that even with a fleet of ambulances and full crews, they still would not have been a match for the heavy snow and ferocious winds that paralyzed roads and caused sweeping power outages. To help, hundreds of community members networked on social media to save those trapped in freezing cars and homes, deliver medicine, and take people to the hospital.
Over the weekend, Poloncarz acknowledged the difficulties of rescuing those in need. Police and ambulances could not get to two-thirds of Erie County’s hardest hit areas because they too were stuck. In the worst affected areas, there were no services available.
“It is not something we are proud of,” he said.
On Tuesday, Poloncarz said that those services were finally back up and available.
In his Tuesday news conference, Garcia said that authorities never expected the impacts to be as bad as they were. “Do we have to get better? Absolutely,” he said, adding that the county needs better and more equipment to respond to this type of weather.
In response to questions about enacting the travel ban, county spokesperson Peter Anderson said in an interview that officials wanted to make “every effort to allow third-shift workers to get home before the brunt of the storm hit was made, and that is why the ban went into effect when it did.”
Many of Buffalo’s residents live in older buildings with poor insulation and electric stoves, making it nearly impossible to stay warm without power. This problem is particularly bad in the eastern part of the city, where there are more lower income and subsidized housing complexes, community organizers said.
In these buildings, many people have been living without food, power, or running water since Friday, burning candles and huddled under blankets, Myles Carter, a housing inspector and volunteer said.
Carter said there are only two working, open warming shelters in the city right now. After rescuing nearly 20 people from frigid conditions, he questioned why city officials did not open more schools, churches and government buildings, and stock them with food, cots and blankets for residents who already struggle to keep their homes warm.
“People told to shelter in place but the places people were sheltering weren’t safe,” he said. “The bottom line is that our entire country knew this blizzard was coming. There should have been more preparation for needy people and a state of emergency declared way ahead of time.”
The city defended how it handled shelters for its 270,000 residents.
DeGeorge, the city spokesperson, said it had “enough warming shelters that were advertised prior to the snow storm and blizzard conditions.” In total, there were four shelters, including the two warming centers, but two quickly lost power. Crews quickly opened another site in South Buffalo. DeGeorge said that additional community centers and some schools were opened.
When asked why more weren’t opened ahead of time, he said that the weather had been in the 40s on Thursday. And when Friday morning’s travel ban went into effect, “that obviously affected our ability to get more shelters open.” Police and fire houses became spontaneous warm spaces, opening their doors to hundreds of people who were caught outside Friday and Saturday, he said.
Disaster experts acknowledge preparing for the storm was a hard balance to strike — deciding how extreme to go when bolstering a community for a disaster.
Often, residents push back against lockdowns or strict safety measures and admonish officials when the preparation seems overblown. In fact, Erie County officials enacted many more warnings and preparations for this snowstorm than they did eight years ago, when a wall of snow struck the area, killing 13 people, suddenly stranding thousands of drivers on impassible roads, and trapping people in their homes for days without food.
“It is terribly, terribly tough to get people in public positions to make preemptive decisions that could cost them immensely. It costs them even if it was the right decision,” Natalie Simpson, an expert on emergency services and disaster response at the University of Buffalo. “Officials did a much better job than they did in 2014, but I think there is going to be a lot of learning from this one.”
‘A once-in-a-generation’ storm
On Dec. 22, Poloncarz advised residents in a news conference to stay home and ensure they had everything they needed for the weekend. He repeated the National Weather Service’s warning that this will be “a once-in-a-generation” storm and that his county “is going to be ground zero.” He reiterated these dire warnings on Facebook and Twitter, urging private businesses to close and reminding drivers that plows will not be out if there is zero visibility.
“As of now, we have not instituted a driving ban but we are monitoring conditions and will make a determination on that as this event develops,” he tweeted at 11:28 a.m. That evening, Erie County issued a state of emergency to start at 7 a.m. the next morning, along with a travel advisory.
But residents wanted an all-out ban earlier. In response to many of his messages, social media users begged him to shut down all travel so that they or their loved ones would not be forced to go to work. Their employers don’t “care about advisories,” they wrote.
“Mark, my best friend works 40 minutes from her home. she will be forced to report to work unless you announce a driving ban. please keep her and the rest of buffalo safe. people do not want to get stranded at their jobs/risk their lives,” one woman wrote.
“Your recommendation already has been completely ignored by the corporation I work for. They want that extra shopping day. Please put the ban in place, many of us work very early tomorrow and are going to get stuck somewhere in this dangerous storm waiting for a decision,” another said. “I’d call it now. No one should be out Friday after 8 a.m.,” chimed in one user.
Shortly before 9 a.m. the next morning, Poloncarz instituted a travel ban starting at 9:30 a.m. — right after the morning rush. By then, many people were already out on the roads, or didn’t know the ban even existed.
Shaquille Jones, a security guard, said in an interview that he went out Friday with his mom and sister — who is on crutches due to a broken leg — and a few relatives for some last minute errands. They ended up stuck in their car for 18 hours, unable to get police to come to their aid. Freezing and facing rising snow, they climbed out the windows at 3 a.m. Saturday, braving 70 mph winds and snow up to their chests to try to find a warm shelter.
Jones said he went back out to try to help rescue other stranded drivers. He said he found several people either not responsive or possibly dead. Some of them curled into their back seats, others under piles of snow near their vehicle.
Stanisława Jóźwiak, a 73-year-old Polish immigrant, was one of those who never made it out of her car. Her daughter, Edie Syta, said that her mother struggled with English and may not have understood the grave danger when she went out Friday morning. Hours later, Syta got a frantic call from her mother after she’d been trapped in a snowdrift for several hours. Family friends eventually found Jóźwiak’s body in her car, buried in about two feet of snow.
“Buffalo should have been better prepared,” Syta said. “ I wish they —” she trailed off. “I don’t know. I just wish it was different.”
Some of the problems that exacerbated the storm’s impact continue to linger. By Monday afternoon, Melanie Sullivan had been going on four days without heat or power, her one-year-old daughter’s hands turning red from the cold despite her best efforts to warm them over boiling pots of water. Like so many others, when she tried to call for help, she was told that her plight was not enough of an emergency, or that police just couldn’t get to them.
Bryan Brauner, the chief executive of Twin City Ambulance, a private company, said his organization has been hampered by staffing shortages for years, and a storm like this requires an immense amount of personnel and equipment. He says the state should have propositioned more plows, heavy equipment and responders to help local agencies during the worst of the storm.
While Buffalo bore the brunt of the damage this storm, smaller, more rural counties were also impacted and have been battling severe weather incidents with truncated budges and broken equipment every year, said state Sen. George Borello, a Republican who has spoken out about the need for better emergency services. For example, in Chautauqua County, where he lives, just the cost of salt to help cars navigate icy roads could “be a budget buster.”
“This certainly is a wake up call that we need to fortify our emergency services,” he said. “The bottom line is that New York state needs to provide more support — That’s bolstering basic needs for equipment and ensuring that local governments have access to funding.”
To fill in gaps during this blizzard, residents have been coordinating their own disaster response efforts in massive Facebook groups. Members have helped get a woman to the hospital to deliver her baby after 911 never showed up and plowers didn’t get to her street; helped deliver food to cancer patients at a hospital; and helped treat an elderly man with frostbite.
Balesteri is one of them. After getting picked up at 6:30 a.m. Saturday by a volunteer fire crew from Seneca, eating a warm meal, and taking a piping hot shower, the EMT was back on the roads responding to calls for help on Facebook, this time in her own truck. Her ambulance still needs to be rescued.