When you boil it all down, there is one fundamental lesson to draw from the cataclysmic snowstorm that engulfed parts of the region a year ago: It could happen again.
Indeed, something of similar magnitude is almost guaranteed to come around again, if not this year, then next. Or if not this decade, then the following one. The summertime blessing of Lake Erie is also a brutal assault force, able to marshal its forces and strike Western New York at its meteorological whim.
Last November, it triggered a blast of snow that buried South Buffalo and areas south and east of the city under up to 7 feet of snow, fomenting a state of emergency that disrupted thousands of lives, put hundreds at risk and killed 14. The toll included two men who lost their lives in vehicles that were stuck in the snow, either beyond the reach of rescuers or beyond their organizational skills to reach the victims.
The weather is unseasonably pleasant on this anniversary week of the thrashing Western New York absorbed last year, but it is unwise not to prepare, individually and civically. The good news is that government has been planning for the next emergency and there is reason to believe that both county and municipal leaders are better prepared to meet it in a way that combines their forces to best effect.
That wasn’t the case last year, when miscommunication or resistance interfered with efforts to clear streets as efficiently as conditions allowed. In particular, town officials complained that the county failed to send plows where they were most urgently needed. But Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz countered that town officials refused to make use of a computer-based system to coordinate the response of crews and also didn’t take part in daily conference calls.
Clearly, the ability to use computers is critical to a coordinated response, unless government officials prefer to operate as creatures of the 20th century, when computer power was not readily available to guide emergency workers. To reduce the possibility of a repeat problem, the county plans to offer more training sessions for town supervisors and emergency managers.
Also important is for individuals to improve their preparations for winter driving and their decision-making as storms approach. Without routinely carrying an emergency kit that includes thermal blankets, jumper cables, a shovel, nutrition, cellphone chargers and other items, along with a full tank of gas, drivers are taking some kind of risk. They may never need those items, but they’ll only need them once to make a difference.
Similarly, drivers should pay attention to forecasts and warnings to stay off the roads. Getting home is a powerful urge, but sometimes delay is the better choice. To sharpen forecasts, the state is building a $23.6 million system of automated weather stations. The Mesonet system should be operational by the end of next year.
Of course, there were acts of bravery and determination and caring during the storm, as well. Western New Yorkers showed a selflessness that helped others survive the two-day onslaught, largely unscathed. That’s the saving grace of disaster, when people look out for one another.
There will be opportunities once again to do that, maybe this winter, maybe not. When it does happen, though, be prepared for rough weather and give it the deference that is due to any killer on the loose.