Lessons from the Buffalo Blizzard

“Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it” is the famous quotation attributed alternately to Mark Twain or Charles Dudley Warner, a Connecticut newspaper editor. More than a century later, a reliable way to do something about the weather still hasn’t quite materialized, though some scientists are working on it.

And as storms packing a strength and fury that used to strike regions of the US only once in a generation are now growing more frequently, cities and states are eager to learn from them—and improve local preparations and responses before the next disaster strikes.

The latest search for answers is going on at NYU Wagner at the request of the City of Buffalo after a blizzard roared in like a locomotive in late December 2022, dumping as much as 49 inches of snow in Western New York. Forty-four people lost their lives—some found in snowbanks, others in freezing automobiles or homes. The ferocity of the whiteout caught even longtime residents off guard, with its speed and impact surpassing even the devastating 1977 Buffalo winter storm that prompted then-President Jimmy Carter to declare the first-ever national disaster prompted by snow.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown recently announced that Wagner’s Rudin Center for Transportation, headed by Sarah Kaufman, will lead a review to determine strengths and gaps in the city’s preparations and response, and what kind of steps could be taken to help gird the region for future weather events of this magnitude.

While the research toward public release of an “after-action” report is only just under way, Kaufman notes that urban planning advances for natural disasters have been evolving for years across the US, and have included such changes as modernized and expanded sewer systems, extra stocks of salt and plows, enlarged emergency workers, and even roadbed heaters.

Kaufman, who teaches urban planning and researches urban mobility, worked on a similar analysis of Hurricane Sandy, which punched and staggered the New York City metro area a decade ago. Her transportation-related recommendations for public capital investment included adding backup power for subway water removal pumps, introducing a more porous street pavement, and moving backup generators and fuel sources to higher floors in flood-prone areas.

NYU News sat down with Kaufman to discuss the Buffalo review.

What is your assignment exactly, and when do you expect it will be completed?

We are tasked with looking at the recent blizzard and how Buffalo handled preparation, response, and recovery. Because Mayor Brown requested the study, we’re hoping to provide actionable learnings so that Buffalo can pinpoint how to be ready for the next storm.

The project is led by the Rudin Center for Transportation, but we’re also collaborating with the Institute for Civil and Infrastructure Systems, also housed at NYU Wagner, and the C2SMART Center at NYU Tandon. We’re also working with some alumni who are based in Buffalo. We’re planning to present findings in the early spring, which will be publicly available.

Emergency communications provided during Hurricane Sandy proved critical to saving lives and getting the New York area moving again. What should communications for a natural disaster look like now?

Much like the media we consume, the shows we watch, and the news we receive each day, there is no central or singular communications platform. So, public communications must be widely dispersed, using all forms of media: TV, radio, social media including TikTok, phone alerts, neighborhood associations and community groups, and physical and digital signage at popular locations. The only way to spread the word is to reach people where they are. That was part of the lesson of Sandy and more recent natural disasters.

The continued dependence on highways and roads also suggests the need for an early warning system to keep people off of them, not unlike tornado-prone areas where people are advised to head for the basement as the twister approaches.

Did the Buffalo blizzard—with its great speed, blinding winds and huge precipitation—remind you of any other major storms you’ve looked at?

Many people have compared this blizzard to Buffalo’s similar storm in 1977. Interestingly, that event helped led to the creation of FEMA, as did the uncoordinated response to the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania. FEMA, of course, was created to assist an area in distress.

California entered 2023 with an “atmospheric river,” resulting in coastal-area flooding, while Hurricane Sandy was of course a disastrous occurrence in New York City. Although the precipitation in these events was different (snow versus rain), many of the emergency management needs are the same: communicating dangers to the public, responding to power and communications outages, deploying and supporting emergency workers, rescuing and providing supplies to residents , and then recovering from the damage.

In the past, cities and states were not always quick to adapt with robust storm sewers, buildings, zoning, and transportation options and infrastructure. But we have since entered the era of climate change, and natural disasters of all types are more common.

Storm systems are indeed changing, producing more intense storms, more frequently.

Recently, New York City was hit by Hurricane Ida, which struck several states in October 2021. Obviously, Ida brought rain rather than snow, but it led to dozens of fatalities. It was so intense, many places were unprepared for the amount of rain that fell in such a short amount of time. In New York City, Ida resulted in its first-ever citywide flash flood warning. The subway system flooded, and in sometimes surprising locations, since predictions had been based on historically different storm systems. So as cities build more resilient infrastructure, they may still be outdone by storms taking new shapes.

Do you think lessons arising from Western New York can be addressed relatively inexpensively?

Communicating with the public on a variety of platforms presents only a small marginal cost but potentially high payoff. Although officials may wish to communicate their messages on network news, many younger people increasingly do not have home televisions. Ideally, official messaging would reach them through social media apps, based on their location—which the apps are collecting regardless—to provide urgent safety updates.

Yet other kinds of remediation, I imagine, will require long-term capital investment.

The upfront cost of storm protection is often high, requiring a diversity of robust snow-clearing and emergency vehicles for different road types, large amounts of salt and sand, workers, and of course damage control. The payoff, however, is the protection of residents, as well as reduced recovery time and costs.

Are there any new technologies out there that might be helpful?

In some places, like Sweden, some roadbeds are heated, to help melt ice and snow. A capital investment like that can truly help improve transport in an emergency, and lead to reduced clearing costs and labor when a storm arrives.

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