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City capitalizes on teachable moment as it looks to next storm

Powerful storms can teach cleanup crews valuable lessons, and the stubborn storm that dumped 40 inches of heavy snow on South Buffalo and other communities earlier this month was no exception.

City and state officials met for nearly 2 1/2 hours Wednesday to discuss a dozen new strategies that might be implemented when the region is socked by similar storms.

The state Thruway Authority acknowledged the need to improve communication and coordination with localities when storms force officials to close portions of the interstate. Thruway officials also are considering installing removable barriers on some stretches to make it easier to divert traffic during weather emergencies.

City officials said they are looking for ways to ease some regulations so that more private tow truck operators would be willing to provide services after storms.

Public works officials also will give Common Council members round-the-clock access to the "storm war room" in City Hall during emergencies so lawmakers can let constituents know what's happening in their neighborhoods.

"As with every storm, you learn a little bit and you move forward," said city Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak.

The cleanup cost the city about $1.5 million, Stepniak said, adding that the city is hoping to receive reimbursement from the federal government for some expenses.

Several residents who were affected by the storm of Dec. 2-3 also attended the meeting.

Arthur Robinson Jr., a block club leader in the Seneca-Babcock neighborhood, believes that the city should have imposed its driving ban earlier. "Seneca [Street] was just backed up. There was nowhere to go," he said. "The plow trucks couldn't plow because they were backed up with traffic."

Stepniak said driving bans can be tricky to implement when only part of the city is affected by a storm.

One of the major problems involved large trucks that left the Thruway and ended up getting stuck on city streets, including South Park Avenue. Many of the disabled trucks prevented plows from getting on some streets.

Crews towed more than 100 tractor-trailers from city streets, city Parking Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer said.

More than 600 cars also were towed, Helfer said. City crews and private contractors hauled more than 11,000 truckloads of snow from streets.

Helfer read a statement on behalf of Mayor Byron W. Brown's administration:

"I can say with complete confidence that I am proud of the work that the men and women of my department exhibited under very trying circumstances, and I know my fellow department heads here with me today feel exactly the same."

He added that within 36 hours after the storm hit, all city streets were "passable."

Thomas E. Pericak, director of the Thruway's Buffalo division, said additional plow trucks were deployed from other areas to try to clear snow. A stretch of the Thruway was eventually closed at about 3 a.m. Dec. 2, even though many vehicles had become stuck the night before.

Pericak said officials are working on a more comprehensive expressway plan for dealing with storms.

"This could have settled over the Kensington. It could have settled over the Youngmann. What would we do in that case? So we want to look at the entire freeway or expressway system throughout Western New York," he said.

Other suggestions raised at the meeting included:

Better coordinating tasks performed by private plow operators in hopes of minimizing the number of snow mounds that are dumped on sidewalks or at intersections.

Investigating the lease of global positioning devices that could be used to track private plows. City plows already are equipped with such devices.

Expanding programs that recruit volunteers to help shovel properties owned by elderly residents or people who have disabilities.

Possibly extending the hours of the 311 call center during major weather events.

East Side community activist Samuel A. Herbert said he's convinced there wasn't enough coordination or communication among city departments, Thruway officials and other entities.

Helfer disputed the contention, insisting that the city has an effective system for responding to storms. Helfer noted that Brown made a number of major changes to the city's snow plan after a 2008 storm.

"Are we perfect? Far from it," Helfer said. "Do we strive to do better after every storm? We do. But to sit here and say that we're not communicating; that's just not fair, and that's wrong."

South Council Member Michael P. Kearns, whose district was hit particularly hard by the storm, called for Wednesday's meeting. He said the discussion touched on a number of strategies that he hopes will be pursued.

"Today is not the end of the conversation," Kearns said. "It's the beginning of the conversation."

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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