Six days after a deadly blizzard began walloping Western New York, Buffalo announced late Wednesday it would lift its travel ban.
But the impact of one of the region's worst blizzards has not quieted.
The storm's death toll inched up Wednesday, reaching 37 in Erie County by 5 p.m., with 29 of them in Buffalo. There has also been one death reported in Niagara County.
Causes of Erie County deaths ranged widely: 17 were found outside, nine were caused by no heat in the home, four were from cardiac events suffered while clearing snow, four more were found in a vehicle and three were due to a delay in emergency medical services. Some have not yet been identified by the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office.
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"I can't say how sorry we are – just know our officers did everything they could," Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said Wednesday morning.
Mayor announces reopening Thursday
Mayor Byron Brown said Wednesday that 450 pieces of equipment at city, county and state levels were at work and announced later that the city would fully reopen for traffic at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. It was the last municipality in Erie County to give the green light to travelers.
Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that the Kensington Expressway (Route 33) and the Scajaquada Expressway (Route 198) and the Erie County portion of the Niagara Thruway (I-190) will be reopening at the same time.
Meanwhile, power has been restored and Buffalo's scheduled sporting events appeared on track. Buffalo's Department of Public Works Commissioner Nate Marton estimated that 95% of main thoroughfares and 80% of secondary roads had been cleared by noon Wednesday, and that all residential streets should expect at least one plow by the end of the day.
The National Guard, of which 611 members were sent to Western New York, went door-to-door in city and suburban neighborhoods Wednesday to check on residents who lost power for an extended period or called for help during the storm. Officials juggled snow removal plans with preparations for preventing flooding from a rapid warmup expected late this week.
While emergency and utility workers continued the cleanup, political divisions also began to reemerge as public officials squabbled over the blizzard response.
At a separate news conference at the county's Emergency Operations Center, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz criticized the city's response, noting that the county had sent about 200 pieces of equipment into the southern third of the city to help and calling the speed of city administration's response "embarrassing."
NYSEG reported that all customers had power early Wednesday, while National Grid restored its power fully by the evening. Both officials alerted the public that members of any household without power for 72 hours or more were eligible to be reimbursed for spoiled food or medicine. Residents were advised to call NYSEG at 866-577-3787, ext. 3, or National Grid at 315-428-3370 for more information.
Preparations for potential flooding in place
Dan Neaverth Jr., Erie County's homeland security and emergency services coordinator, said his team felt "confident" it would be prepared for any potential flooding caused by warming temperatures, with workers surveying local creeks by aircraft to identify ice jams. Gov. Kathy Hochul said several state departments were coordinating a plan, while more than 330 pumps, 312 generators, four sandbaggers and 775,000 sandbags were made available from state stockpiles.
As snow melted, county residents whose vehicles were towed to clear paths for emergency responders attempted to find their vehicles. Gramaglia said that owners of vehicles in the city should call their district police station for time and place of retrieval. Poloncarz said drivers whose vehicles were towed by the county could find their locations on the Department of Public Works' page at Erie.gov. If drivers arrive with their fobs, they are allowed to take their cars, Poloncarz said. He emphasized there would be no cost for towed vehicles on the county list.
Police focus on looting, reducing backlogs
As the City of Buffalo focused on cleanup, it also sought to bring consequences for looting at stores and restaurants during the storm's aftermath.
Gramaglia said nine arrests had been made for the looting that occurred in the city, including at Louie's Texas Red Hots on Bailey Avenue and at locations in Black Rock and Riverside. He did not provide specific numbers of instances or locations. Police announced a 10th arrest on Twitter Wednesday night. By midday Wednesday, Buffalo police said it had trimmed its backlog of 1,000 emergency calls to around 200, the commissioner added.
Poloncarz said the state was using SUNY Buffalo State College as its staging area for storm cleanup. Pedestrians and workers were advised to use caution around high-lifts and dump trucks. He added that state military police had been called in not for ticketing purposes as he said a member of his team erroneously posted on Twitter, but to prevent any accidental death at the cleanup sites.
'A horrible year for our community'
Erie County Sheriff John C. Garcia and new deputy county executive Lisa Chimera focused on positives: The former applauded the county's and Northtowns' effort in blizzard response, and the latter cheered the city's moniker of "City of Good Neighbors."
"Nine out of 10 stories will be great stories that come out of this. We've had so many citizens step up with their snowmobiles and their plows to assist us," Garcia said.
The county executive's reflected on "heartbreaking" end to a year filled with tragedy.
"2022 has been a horrible year for our community in so many different ways," Poloncarz said. "I can't wait until 2023 starts, to tell the truth. I think we all feel the same way. Karma owes us next year big time for this community."
Ben Tsujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at (716) 849-6927 or on Twitter at @Tsuj10.