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Death toll in Buffalo blizzard rises; delayed emergency response cited

Announcement of three more deaths comes amid blowback from residents about the city’s storm preparation

An abandoned ambulance on Dec. 25 in Buffalo after a blizzard pummeled the city. (Malik Raney for The Washington Post)
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An earlier version of this article misstated the day of a Buffalo Common Council meeting. It took place Tuesday, not Wednesday. The article has been corrected.

The death toll from Buffalo’s historic blizzard has risen to 47 after Erie County officials announced that a delayed emergency response may have contributed to the deaths of an additional three people.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Thursday on Twitter that three residents died after they suffered cardiac events that were witnessed by friends or family and emergency responders could not get to them because of the severe weather. One person died on Christmas Eve in Cheektowaga, another died on Christmas in Amherst, about 10 minutes away, and the third died in Buffalo on Dec. 27.

In total, seven people died because of what officials have characterized as a delayed EMS response. The majority of the dead in Erie County were found outside or in their cars, and 26 of the 46 were people of color. Another person died in Niagara County.

The medical examiner is still waiting to confirm the manner of death in three other cases, Poloncarz said, so the death toll could still rise.

Buffalo, which experienced the worst damage and had the most deaths, has been the scene of ongoing protests as residents continue to demand accountability from the mayor and other officials. The chaos during and after the historic storm sparked criticism of the city’s emergency preparedness processes, its budget and its lack of participation in the county’s planning.

The city is the second-largest in the state, home to two major sports teams, and is consistently hit with severe, life-threatening weather, but it has not had an official emergency manager for years.

Part of an emergency manager’s job is to create procedures for responding to natural disasters and other emergencies, usually leading the response during and after emergencies — corralling and organizing public safety officials, first responders, authorities and other government agencies. Before, during and after a major disaster, the emergency manager and other top officials usually convene at the emergency operations center — along with representatives from entities such as utilities, the fire department and other public safety agencies — to communicate information in real time.

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Buffalo also does not have an emergency response or preparation section on its website for residents to find information.

A former county employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said that the city’s lack of involvement and communication was not new, confirming that Buffalo consistently has not been involved in county emergency response efforts for other past storms.

“To convene in that way is lifesaving because information is being shared immediately,” the former county employee said. “The city was not present there, nor does the city not have its own version. That would have helped response and decisions early.”

Without an official emergency manager, the city’s fire commissioner, William Renaldo, has been handling those duties. However, Renaldo went on a planned vacation during the blizzard, a choice that has frustrated some in the department.

“The emergency management coordinator for the city of Buffalo chose to attend a prior scheduled, preapproved vacation to Florida while an impending storm, since labeled historic, descended on the city of Buffalo,” Vinny Ventresca, the president of Buffalo Professional Firefighters Local 282, said at a Buffalo Common Council meeting Tuesday.

Renaldo and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown have defended the city’s handling of the storm, saying they were adequately prepared. It was a once-in-a-generation disaster, and no equipment or plan could have made much of a difference, they’ve both said to council members and the media.

In a statement, city spokesman Mike DeGeorge said the city had representatives at the county’s operations center. Its fire department also “has a collaborative management model and was in constant communication throughout the storm” and was operating its own emergency operations center, he said.

The city does not have a formal emergency operations office; in inquiries into the storm’s response, the Buffalo Common Council learned that city workers were spread out at three locations. Mayor Brown recently proposed creating a “fleet manager” to oversee fire, police and public works vehicles. But that is not enough for some members of the council, who have for weeks been calling for an official city manager.

The council has been interviewing fire officials and others who were involved about the delays. They have filed critical resolutions to examine the city’s equipment inventory and budget, and bolster emergency responders’ ability to respond.

In a letter to Brown calling for an inquiry to the blizzard response, Fillmore District council member Mitch Nowakowski pointed out that nearby cities employ full-time emergency managers, as well as operations centers.

“In order to make the city safer in the future from human or natural disasters, disaster preparedness is critical.” he wrote, stating that “there were clear deficiencies in the emergency response to the December 2022 Blizzard that need to be immediately addressed.”

As criticism mounted over the slow, haphazard response last month, Poloncarz said in a news conference that the city had not attended any of the daily coordination meetings before or during the blizzard. He also called its response “embarrassing.”

According to county officials, a handful of leaders from Buffalo’s fire and police departments had embedded with their emergency operations and worked tirelessly throughout the storm.

Buffalo blizzard fuels racial and class divides in polarized city

One of the major issues was clearing and removing snow and stranded cars from the roads, which prevented food deliveries and recovery crews from getting to residents. Critics pointed out that the city’s 2022-2023 snow removal plan does not mention the word “blizzard.” Some of the equipment has also been around since 2005.

Buffalo’s police and firefighters, who helped save hundreds of residents by rescuing them off the street and sheltering them in their stations, have also been criticizing their city’s emergency planning and equipment.

Last week, about 100 union members from Buffalo fire, police and public works departments attended a Common Council meeting to demand new equipment, something they say they’ve been requesting for years.

Ventresca has been especially outspoken about dilapidated resources and poor communication, telling lawmakers that firefighters could not get to calls for emergency medical assistance or fires, because of the clogged streets and equipment breakdowns, as well as the weather.

Since a big part of the fire department’s work is EMS and its commissioner has been the technical emergency manager, Ventresca demanded that firefighters have the necessary resources for the cold season and “should be training for winter operations.”

Along with some other officials and lawmakers, he blamed some of the deaths on a “lack of planning and having to operate with outdated and broken-down rigs, equipment and firehouses.”