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Scrutiny mounts over Buffalo’s response to deadly blizzard

An aerial photo of Buffalo on Dec. 28. (Joed Viera/AFP/Getty Images)
9 min

BUFFALO — The city of Buffalo’s response to the massive blizzard that left at least 37 people across the region dead came under growing attack Wednesday, as emergency responders continued to search for survivors and plows moved mini-mountains of snow that kept the city under a driving ban for a sixth consecutive day.

Speaking at a daily briefing, Mark Poloncarz, the executive of Erie County, which includes Buffalo, slammed city leaders for failing to clear streets quickly and accused Mayor Byron W. Brown’s administration of being disengaged in the coordinated local and state response. Poloncarz said the county “took over” cleanup in one-third of Buffalo and had discussed with state officials the possibility of assuming responsibility for all plowing inside city limits during future large storms.

“We have an elected officials call every morning, and the city of Buffalo was not on it,” Poloncarz said. He added: “The mayor is not going to be happy to hear about it, but storm, after storm, after storm, after storm, the city, unfortunately, is the last one to be opened, and that shouldn’t be the case. It’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth.”

Brown, speaking at a separate briefing minutes later, deflected the accusations, emphasizing that Buffalo was the hardest-hit area of a historic storm. He said Poloncarz had not expressed concerns to him and insisted there was “no feud” between the two.

“People have been working around-the-clock since the beginning of this storm,” Brown said. “Some people handle that pressure a lot differently. Some keep working. Some keep trying to help the residents of our community, and some break down and lash out.”

In an interview later Wednesday, Brown again brushed off the accusations. “We get the frustration, the fear, the anger,” he said. “But everything that could have been done in the lead-up to the storm and during the storm was done.”

The blame-casting threatened to hamper coordination during the aftermath of the worst storm to hit the region since 1977 and drew fresh scrutiny to Brown, who has led the city for nearly 17 years. Brown was reelected in 2021 to a fifth term as a write-in candidate despite corruption scandals at City Hall and complaints about mismanagement in a deeply impoverished city.

“Our city government is failing us,” said community organizer India Walton, a socialist who was the Democratic nominee for mayor. “There’s deflection, gaslighting, excuse-making, and that means that 30 people are dead as a result, and somebody needs to be held accountable.”

Even in a famously snowy region, the storm had a crushing impact that experts and elected officials attributed to a combination of historic blizzard conditions, a scarcity of emergency management resources and the determination of some residents accustomed to extreme weather to carry on with their lives — especially in the days before Christmas.

And unlike past storms, which often hit small towns outside Buffalo hardest, this one walloped the city, imperiling more people, knocking out power to more residences and snarling streets packed with cars that ended up serving as roadblocks to emergency responders.

But questions about preparedness — including the timing of a travel ban, which was issued during the Friday morning commute just minutes before 79-mile winds hit the area — have mounted as Buffalo digs out from under the snowdrifts. Brown said Friday that the city was “absolutely” capable of dealing with the snow from a storm of this magnitude, but he also said “the city’s snow-fighting plan doesn’t address blizzards. It addresses normal snowfall.”

In an interview, Buffalo Common Council member Rasheed Wyatt said he did not “want to point fingers” but acknowledged that the storm revealed a need to review city plans. No changes were made after a large snowstorm in November, he noted.

“We have to learn some lessons from what happened,” Wyatt said, adding: “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime storm. But I’m not just going to put it all on that. There are things that we could have done better.”

Asked why the travel ban was not issued earlier, Poloncarz said officials weighed projections indicating the storm band would not hit until midmorning and the need for overnight shift workers to be able to get home. “If anyone’s to be blamed, you can blame me,” he said. “I’m the one who has to make the final call on behalf of the county.”

In a Wednesday evening news conference, Brown said the driving ban would end at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. He praised the work of emergency crews who worked to plow and haul snow off city roads, but added that the work is not complete and residents should still avoid driving if they can. City Commissioner Nathan Marton said that as of 10 p.m., 95 percent of main streets and 80 percent of secondary roads were cleared, predicting that 100 percent of residential roads would be accessible by the end of the night.

That timeline was little comfort to Buffalo residents who remained bound by snow nearly a week after the storm, frustrated with the inability to drive to buy groceries or medications. In the LaSalle neighborhood of Buffalo’s East Side, the streets were still barely passable Wednesday afternoon. Residents were scooping snow now dense and heavy after a day of higher temperatures.

Kazi Mohammad was using a snowblower in the driveway of a rental property trapped by a four-foot snow bank, dumped there by a front-end loader. Mohammad, a supervisor at a nonprofit, said he didn’t see any snow-clearing on his street until late Tuesday.

“I feel like the city has always been ill-prepared for snowstorms like this,” Mohammad said.

Up the street, Jesse and Nadine Mitchell cleared snow from around their car after digging out their driveway. Trucks, SUVs and the occasional car made their way down a narrow path cut in the snow.

Nadine Mitchell, her voice rising as she recounted her displeasure with the government response, blamed both Brown and Gov. Kathy Hochul (D).

“For a week, they knew this storm was coming,” she said. “So why would you not have National Guard already here in place?”

It’s always the poorest neighborhoods that get cleaned up last, Mitchell said — neighborhoods like hers.

“As a taxpayer, as a homeowner, how is it that we are always being left to be last to be dug the hell out?” she said.

With temperatures warming to the 40s, county officials said Wednesday they were now preparing for the possibility of flooding from snowmelt, though they said it was unlikely to cause problems.

Authorities were also dealing with many reports of looting, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said. Authorities arrested nine suspects on Tuesday, he said, describing stores where “the shelves, the cash registers, things have absolutely been destroyed. It’s uncalled for. It’s disgusting, to be perfectly honest.” By Wednesday evening, 10 people had been arrested.

At least 37 people in the county lost their lives to the storm, Poloncarz said, with 29 of those in Buffalo.

More victims were likely to be found, officials warned. Members of the National Guard began fanning out Wednesday, going door to door to check on residents in neighborhoods that lost power, Poloncarz said.

“We are fearful that there are individuals who may have perished, including alone, or people who are not doing well in an establishment, especially those that still don’t have power,” Poloncarz said.

Police and National Guard members went door to door on Dec. 28 to check on residents in Buffalo following the deadly blizzard. (Video: Reuters)

Among those who perished was lifelong resident and retired truck driver William Clay. According to his sister, Sophia Clay, he took seriously the threat of storms, having seen firsthand how the weather of this city on the edge of Lake Erie can turn in an instant from cold and still to a blinding, furious and deadly snow.

Sophia Clay last spoke to her brother around midnight Saturday morning — Christmas Eve — when she called to wish him a happy 56th birthday. “He sounded happy,” she said. “He told me he loved me, and that he would see me soon.”

A little while later, the family believes, Clay set out on foot to walk to a nearby convenience store to pick up last-minute supplies. That night, a relative arriving at Clay’s home found the house empty and alerted other family members.

Concerned, Sophia Clay posted a Facebook message asking neighbors to look out for her brother. Hours later, the family was alerted to a photograph circulating on social media of a man face down in the building snow blocks from her brother’s home. She knew it was him: She recognized his coat.

Sophia Clay said she called the Buffalo Police. “They said they were on their way,” she said. But hours later, the family was horrified to see new photos of the body still there. “Hours upon hours upon hours, he just laid there,” she said.

The family felt helpless. Driving was banned. Increasingly unconvinced local officials would respond, Clay’s relatives began to try to figure out a way to go pick up his body on their own.

Clay’s body was finally recovered late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. The family still hasn’t been able to go to the medical examiner’s office to see the body in person, though his sister identified her brother by a photo of a tattoo on his arm.

“I think he was overtaken by the storm and just became disoriented,” Sophia Clay said. “That’s the only thing I can think of, because he knew how bad these storms can be. He knew to be afraid.”

What is painful is that her brother was dressed for the elements. She confirmed through the coroner that her brother was wearing a coat and layers. He had his hat on. “It wasn’t enough,” she said.

Brianna Sacks contributed to this report.


A previous version of a photo caption in this article incorrectly said that snow was being plowed off Interstate 33. It was Route 33. The article has been corrected.