For most of the last century or so, New York State’s Cabinet has reported to the governor in an ornate room of the Capitol, surrounded by the trappings of Albany power.
On Monday, the seat of state government shifted 280 miles westward to a drab conference room in the Thruway Authority’s rented Buffalo Division headquarters on Cayuga Road in Cheektowaga. But there was no question that the machinery of state government was centered there, humming in high gear as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his top commissioners – from the State Police and National Guard to the Departments of Transportation and Health – all braced for the next phase of combating last week’s massive snowstorm.
In a sometimes playful and a sometimes dead serious gathering, the governor dispatched his commissioners to various working sites across Erie County for the rest of the day. He reminded them that the state needs to show its presence and reassure a still-nervous Western New York.
“I’ve been on these catastrophes before, and that you care enough to show up is a big deal,” he said.
And he didn’t hesitate to exhort his team with a bit of “rah rah,” too.
“I love this culture and ethic that we are one state – that we are there for one another,” the governor told his staff. “To the extent we can advance that ethic, this is what we do. That’s a powerful ethic that we haven’t had before.”
The Buffalo News sat in on the meeting of about 40 people – commissioners and their assistants – as each department head related to their boss details of how their agency was bracing for floods that, at that moment at least, appeared to be holding off.
From the National Guard and its approximately 500 ground and flight personnel deployed to the area, to the Health Department’s monitoring of effects on hospitals and nursing homes, to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s keeping a close eye on rising creeks, Cuomo asked for and received updates on how exactly each unit of state government was prepared to respond. Just about all the commissioners of state government had traveled to Buffalo to coordinate their departments’ efforts, effectively transferring the government to Cheektowaga.
Some of the state preparations conveyed to the governor on Monday included:
• Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald reported that 363 pieces of equipment were assigned to 16 municipalities over the previous three days.
• James Malatras, director of state operations, warned that heavy snow is now expected in the Hudson Valley during the Thanksgiving travel surge. He was ordering some heavy equipment sent from Long Island and the Hudson Valley to return to their home bases in preparation for the storm and as operations begin to wind down in Erie County.
“Just in time for Thanksgiving,” Cuomo mused.
• Though flood threats remain, most state officials said they believed the region’s creeks and streams so far were handling the runoff and delivering the melted snow back to Lake Erie.
“We will have some flooded basements; the winds with gusts up to 60 mph are the key issue,” Malatras said, adding that extensive preparations were designed to face potential power outages.
“I don’t think we’ll be up the creek,” added DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens, who then rattled off flood gauge readings that were holding steady at various streams in the region.
• The commander of the New York National Guard, Maj. Gen. Patrick Murphy, reported some West Seneca residents had left their homes as floodwaters began rising early Monday. But he too rattled off a list of preparations that included deployment of dozens of pumps and generators in the most threatened areas.
• William Davis, director of the Office of Emergency Management, said 18 swiftwater rescue teams and their boats dispatched from the Office of Parks and Recreation, DEC, Fire Prevention and Control and the New York City Fire Department were stationed at four locations where floodwaters might rise.
“All those teams are now talking and understand the playbook,” Davis said, adding that new radio equipment gives the state the additional communication capabilities unavailable in previous emergencies.
• Sandbagging operations are underway at Erie Community College North Campus, Murphy reported, adding that 65,000 sandbags were also dispatched to other stockpiles at the Buffalo Sewer Authority and Hamburg DOT operations. Dump trucks and front-end loaders were being recalled as snow-removal operations subsided, he said.
Some dump trucks would be reassigned for delivering sandbags, Murphy said, while high-axle trucks capable of plowing through 5 feet of water were standing by at the Connecticut Street and Masten Avenue armories.
• RoAnn Destito, general services commissioner, said six portable generators were dispatched to Fire Prevention and Control officials, while others were stationed at the Elma Fire Department. Thirty-three pumps and assorted hoses also had been assigned.
“I can assure you we know where all state assets are and can go after them,” she assured the governor.
Lt. Gov.-elect Kathy Hochul sat at the governor’s side at the head of the table, mostly observing her colleagues-to-be in action.
“It’s a good crash course for me,” she said. “He’s able to really manage a crisis like I’ve never seen before. I’m learning from the master.”
When Destito reported that 2,000 MREs, or meals ready to eat, had been dispatched to feed emergency personnel, Cuomo displayed his well-known penchant for managing even some of the most minute details. He questioned why food-preparation contractors could not be hired by the state to feed those staged at ECC and other locations.
“Maybe it’s the Italian in me; I don’t want them to have MREs,” he said. “That’s rough, that MRE stuff. Pasta, lasagna would be nice.”
Cuomo ventured into the nitty-gritty again when he questioned why the state could not procure military “ducks” or similar amphibious vehicles to attack ice and debris jams that contribute to flooding in creeks. He said he would ask the canal division of the Thruway Authority to give him answers.
But he also waxed a bit philosophically as he reviewed a massive state operation that, for the moment, appeared to be drawing to a close. As he has throughout the week of response to the storm, the governor thanked those who have worked hard and traveled from across the state to respond.
“I want to figure out a way to say thank you to the National Guard guys and all the other governments who showed up,” he said. “From Nassau County, they traveled 12 hours in a truck to get there.
“But the guys from Nassau County said, ‘We remember when others came for Hurricane Sandy; they were there for us,’ ” he said. “FDNY – you were there for us for Sandy and 9/11.”
The governor, clearly thinking out loud, suggested a possible commemorative coin or certificate of appreciation to those who responded from locally and afar.
“The people of Buffalo were very appreciative, bringing out coffee and food,” he said. “In the worst situations, it brings out the best in some people.
“I don’t know how to say thank you,” he added, “but I want to say thank you.”