How the Buffalo Blizzard Became So Deadly
On Dec. 19, as the Christmas holiday week began, Buffalo appeared ready for another storm. Officials huddled with weather forecasters while they pulled together a small army of emergency responders, along with the plows, backhoes, salt spreaders and ambulances needed to face the onslaught.
The next day, media blitzes warned drivers to stay off the roads.
Mark Poloncarz, the Erie County executive, expressed wary optimism. “I mean, two feet of snow is expected,” he said. He and other officials believed they were prepared.
They were wrong.
What was bearing down on Buffalo was a rare and deadly combination of wind and snow.
While Buffalo typically gets a storm that dumps two to three feet of snow every couple of years, and even winds as high as 60 to 70 miles per hour, “it’s very unusual to get the two of them put together,” said Bob Hamilton, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Buffalo. On the morning of Dec. 23, he said, the winds went within minutes from 10 miles per hour up to 70.
The storm lasted four days, but the vast majority of the snow — about 36 inches out of the total 51.9 inches recorded in the Buffalo region — fell Friday into Saturday morning. “If you held your hands straight out in front of your face, you couldn’t see your hand for probably 30 to 36 hours,” Mr. Hamilton said.
Driving conditions quickly deteriorated across the Buffalo region as a catastrophic blizzard rolled in.Credit…Brandon Watson for The New York Times
Calling the storm a “once-in-a-generation” event might not be strong enough, he said. “In hindsight, it may have been even greater than that.”
Hurricane-force winds and four feet of blinding lake-effect snow caused whiteout conditions that paralyzed emergency response efforts.
Rescue workers themselves were left stranded in ambulances, police trucks and other emergency vehicles across the city.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Buffalo native, would call it the longest sustained blizzard to ever hit the city, an “epic, once-in-a-lifetime storm.”
On the evening of Dec. 22, Erie County issued a state of emergency beginning the next morning, along with a travel advisory. But it fell short of what many worried workers wanted: an outright travel ban so they would not have to travel to work.
Days later, with plow trucks and loaders still removing snow from clogged streets, and at least 40 people dead, the region was left with frustrating and troubling questions:
Had the county waited too long to shut down roadways, leaving residents to get stranded in their cars?
Were Buffalo officials too slow to get the local roads cleared, as the county executive said?
Was there more that anyone could have done?
The storm rolls in
Snow squalls began to bombard the area on Dec. 23. Stores shut down, and authorities ordered all cars off the road. But by the time the county instituted a travel ban, many people were already out on the roads and unaware of it. Others said they had no choice but to risk driving.
After picking his children up from the babysitter, Zila Santiago became trapped with his family for 11 hours in their minivan as snow barreled down. He entertained his four young children with a “Frozen” video, feeding them juice he found in the trunk and helping them urinate in bottles, until a passing snowplow saw them.
“I was scared,” Mr. Santiago said. “This is not something that I’ve been through or experienced in my lifetime.”
As the storm intensified, authorities mobilized the State Police, extra fire responders and the New York State National Guard. They had snowmobiles, rugged all-terrain vehicles and trucks filled with emergency meals.
But emergency workers were finding themselves stymied by snow-clogged streets just like the motorists they were trying to rescue.
The police were able to rescue about 65 people, “and then the weather just became too bad,” said Joseph Gramaglia, the Buffalo police commissioner. The city’s emergency call system could not handle the influx. More than 1,000 unanswered calls would pile up in the next few days.
One of those people never rescued was Anndel Nicole Taylor, 22, a nursing assistant who became stranded in her car Friday night. She frantically called 911, but no help came. That night, she texted her family and told them she was scared. “That was the last time we spoke to her,” said her older sister, Shawnequa Renee Brown, 35. Ms. Taylor was later found dead.
Falling trees were bringing down power lines, and substations froze over, leaving thousands of homes without power, a number that would reach roughly 30,000 by the weekend.
The deadly cold began claiming more victims, and it fell to neighbors, at times, to find and tend to the bodies.
Emmanuel Bobe, 29, a mechanic snowed in at his shop in Buffalo on Christmas Eve, finally ventured outside in search of supplies but made a grim discovery: a woman who lived nearby had frozen to death.
“It looked like she had blocks of ice on her eyelashes,” said Mr. Bobe.
At a home nearby, Casey Maccarone, 26, was growing frantic. Her mother had stepped outside their home for a moment, hours ago.
She turned to a Facebook citizen rescue page newly created to locate and save missing people, since 911 calls were going unanswered and whiteout conditions were blocking emergency responders.
Ms. Maccarone posted a description of her mother’s clothes — a black puffer jacket and bluejeans. “My mother went out and she hasn’t returned in two hours. Has anyone seen her?”
Meanwhile, Mr. Bobe had moved the dead woman — still in her puffy coat and jeans — under a nearby awning to protect her from the snow. Still shaken, he went inside and checked the Facebook page only to see Ms. Maccarone’s post and realize he had found her mother, Monique Alexander, 52.
“Seeing snow will never be the same,” Ms. Maccarone said later.
“It’s torture,” she said. “I just wish she would come back.”
By Saturday morning, subfreezing temperatures in snow-blind Buffalo created deadly conditions for people trying to brave the storm in their cars or tempting fate by walking home and winding up dead in a snow drift.
Some were forced out into the cold because of necessity, while others who ventured out might not have realized the dangerous conditions, with fatal results.
On Christmas Day, Abdul Sharifu, 26, went out in his car for food for himself and his pregnant wife and apparently became stranded. His body was found nearby; his friends believe he had tried to get out and walk.
“It is very difficult,” said Enock Rushikana, who considered Mr. Sharifu a nephew. “We still don’t understand.”
Almost every fire truck in the city was stranded on Saturday, said Governor Hochul, whose state agencies were sending more resources, including fuel trucks, emergency meals and more than 1,100 blankets and pillows. A contingent of state National Guard troops needed to be rescued after getting stuck on their way into Buffalo.
‘City of Good Neighbors’
With a lack of response to emergency calls, many Buffalo residents banded together to help each other, lending credence to Buffalo’s “City of Good Neighbors” nickname.
Leon Horace Miller, 52, of Buffalo, transformed his landscaping and snow plow company into a rescue operation.
Felicia Williamson, who runs a day care center, joined a group of residents on snowmobiles to save people in unsafe and unheated homes.
Strangers opened their homes. Restaurants, barbershops and chain stores took in stranded neighbors.
One snowmobiler, William Kless, said he rescued scores of people, including an ailing dialysis patient stranded in his car.
On Christmas Eve, an intellectually disabled man who worked for 40 years at the North Park movie theater become lost in the storm and was found crying and disoriented by Sha’Kyra Aughtry, who helped carry him to her home. She cut off his socks and cared for his frostbite. A day later, rescuers responding to her desperate Facebook posts plowed a path and took the man, Joe White, to the hospital.
Alexander and Andrea Campagna’s house became a safe haven for a group of nine Korean tourists who were traveling from Washington, D.C., to Niagara Falls. After their van became stranded, they spent Christmas Eve with the Campagnas, cooking up a feast of Korean food.
Then there were two dozen stranded motorists who took refuge in a Target store over the Christmas weekend, along with a group of Target employees stuck at work. The Alabama Hotel in nearby Basom, which despite its name is a restaurant, not a hotel, took in 115 passing motorists and four dogs. Some people slept on the restaurant’s bar top.
“We made an instantaneous decision that we were going to become a shelter,” said Joe Bradt, the manager.
Ms. Williamson’s volunteer snowmobile brigade would later switch to delivering food.
“All of the local stores and corner stores were looted, so even if people were able to walk to the store to get something, the stores were empty,” she said. There is only one grocery store on the East Side — the Tops market where a racist shot and killed 10 Black people in March — and it was closed.
By Christmas morning, the snow tapered off, leaving devastation.
The death toll, which had been 17, was rising quickly as more frozen bodies were discovered in abandoned cars, snowdrifts and darkened homes. Thousands of houses still lacked power. In numerous homes where loved ones were lost, presents remained under Christmas trees, unopened.
“It was just a crying day,” said Ms. Brown, who lost her sister, the nurse’s aide, Ms. Taylor.
At a morning news conference Mr. Poloncarz noted that a specialized team had made more than 50 rescues overnight, many of which were rescues of other emergency workers. “When the rescuers have to be rescued, I’m not certain what else we could have done,” he said.
Still many responders did manage to get through. By Sunday evening, state officials said their emergency responders had assisted in nearly 500 rescues and had helped to deliver a baby.
The storm that followed
On Wednesday, as the death toll rose to 40 and temperatures warmed, workers continued to remove snow from Buffalo’s streets, and state National Guard troops in Humvees fanned out to check homes that lost power.
But a political storm was brewing. Mr. Poloncarz criticized Byron Brown, the mayor of Buffalo, over his efforts to clear the city’s streets, calling it “embarrassing.”
In response, Mr. Brown suggested that Mr. Poloncarz was struggling from the stress of the crisis, adding, “Some keep trying to help the residents of our community, and some break down and lash out.”
On Thursday, Mr. Poloncarz apologized “for letting my emotions get the best of me.”
But both officials have come under withering criticism from angry residents: Mr. Brown from those frustrated with the pace of storm response, and Mr. Poloncarz from people adamant that he should have banned motorists from county roads sooner than he did.
Mr. Poloncarz acknowledged the controversy on Twitter, writing, “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.”
When Mr. Brown was asked by a reporter if he believed he should resign over the public’s frustration and the loss of life from the storm, he too defended himself.
“I don’t think I should resign,” he said. “Again, these were historic blizzard conditions.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research. Michael D. Regan and Campbell Robertson contributed reporting.