The storm is over, so now it’s time for government officials to lob snowballs at one another. It’s a dismaying spectacle from public servants whose job should be, as quickly as possible, to learn from the mistakes of last week’s storm before the next one comes through.
And it will.
Less than a week after much of Western New York was paralyzed by a monster storm – one that took 13 lives – town highway superintendents are carping that the county did too little for them, while the county notes that too many towns failed to take advantage of an Internet-based system designed to bring emergency operations into the 21st century. It’s time to be serious.
It’s impossible to know, at this point, who is more to blame for any of the failures that accompanied a storm that previewed Armageddon, but improvement relies on identifying those lapses and ensuring that they are not repeated.
There may be issues of accountability to be determined – especially where poor response may have contributed to the deaths of two snowbound motorists – but the more immediate issue is learning from this experience with a determination to do better next time.
Finger-pointing won’t accomplish that.
The epic storm closed roads in some towns for days. We don’t know yet exactly how well or poorly Erie County did at clearing those roads, though some highway superintendents are complaining about the county’s performance.
What is plain, though, is that if the criticism of Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz is correct and some towns didn’t make use of the county’s computer-based Disaster Local Access Network, or DLAN, then they helped ensure the response was less efficient than it otherwise might have been.
Leaders of other towns, including Boston, he said, never took part in daily conference calls to help plan the day’s snow-fighting efforts. That’s beyond irresponsible, verging on crazy.
The DLAN system is specialized to coordinate the response to disasters and is heavily used around New York State, according to Poloncarz, but it goes unused by many Western New York highway officials.
“The problem was that only one or two people even knew about the system,” he said, despite county insistence upon its use.
If that is accurate, then the task ahead begins with education and training. Town highway officials need to understand that the system exists and how to use it during an emergency. They can’t cling to 20th century technology when something better exists to coordinate emergency response and to preserve the safety – and the lives – of their citizens.
It will be easy to fall into old habits on the theory that this storm was a once-in-a-lifetime event. In the face of our changing climate, that forecast may or may not be true, but either way, it would be irresponsible to count on it.
At a minimum, the response to more typical snowstorms can be improved if everyone gets on the same page. That is reason enough for county and town officials to get together, isolate the weaknesses in the response to last week’s storm and fix them. Today would not be too soon to begin.