Erie County may have proved no place for man, beast nor cars over the past few days, but snowmobiles found their element – as well as a vital role.
In the face of a driving ban and snow-clogged streets impenetrable to vehicles, volunteers on snowmobiles have ferried elderly people to shelters, rescued the snowbound and brought essential personnel to hospitals as police and emergency officials found them one of the few reliable means of transport.
"We have deployed volunteer snowmobile operators throughout our five district houses," Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said in a Monday interview. "They've been helping with supplies, have helped get people out of their cars, and, in some cases, helped get people out of their cars and into shelters.
"We're absolutely grateful they answered the call when we put it out," he added, noting that the department is no longer relying on their assistance.
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Mayor Byron W. Brown also noted that some of those rescued by snowmobilers involved transport to district police stations and firehouses.
'We were at the mercy of Mother Nature': Officials defend blizzard response, blame ferocious conditions
New York State, Erie County and Buffalo officials said Monday they were well-prepared with staffing, equipment and supplies heading into the blizzard that hit Western New York over the holiday weekend. The problem was, at the height of the deadly storm, there wasn't much they could do because conditions were so bad.
"Some seniors who were in homes without power who were uncomfortable staying in a home without power and also people we found on the street just walking," he said, "because we know that some people that caught got out walking in blizzard conditions didn't make it."
The response of snowmobile volunteers and others represented only part of the hundreds of emergency responses logged since Friday, the commissioner said. He noted that police worked with Department of Public Works personnel to dispatch high lifts to calls from stranded motorists, some of whom spent the night in their cars. The paths they cleared allowed for police response to about 65 people before conditions deteriorated, he said.
"We actually had times where officers had to abandon their police cars and seek refuge at various locations," Gramaglia added.
Emergency personnel also relied on volunteers in the suburbs. Joel French, a Williamsville resident and member of the Northern Erie Snow Seekers snowmobile club, logged more than 80 miles on his sled Christmas Day. He and several other volunteers responded to a host of needs stemming from the emergency shelter at the Amherst Recreation Center, as well as people in a Sheridan Drive neighborhood. One effort involved a 90-year-old woman trapped behind 6-foot snow drifts in a townhouse complex without power, growing more frigid by the hour.
The woman had fallen, crawled into bed and was shivering by the time French and volunteer firefighters arrived.
"Can you imagine this elderly woman living by herself?" French recalled Monday. "She was just terrified."
He and his companions then removed the woman via rescue chair and transported her to the recreation center shelter.
"I don't think she would have been able to make it through the night," he said.
Another rescue sent French, firefighters and a town high lift ripping though drifts at the home of elderly woman. Once they reached her front door, they were able to carry her on a snowmobile to a neighbor's home warmed by a gas fireplace.
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Cassandra Garmon was driving home from her job as a pharmacy tech at Buffalo General Hospital when her car got stuck on Clinton Street. She found help through a plea on Facebook.
That was only part of his 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Christmas Day. French also transported a nurse to Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital and a mother and 5-year-old daughter who needed to get back to their home.
"I just kept making trips back and forth," he said.
At the Amherst Recreation Center, Mary Pouli and her staff have been overseeing a facility assisting more than 100 people since onset of the storm. Some of those holed up there are dialysis patients or are frail and elderly who require "a good deal of care and support ... people without power and dealing with anything life-threatening."
"Since Friday afternoon, we've been helping folks as fire or police pulled them out and brought them here," said Pouli, executive director of the Amherst Youth and Recreation Department, adding that people also sought shelter at the Main-Transit, East Amherst and Getzville fire halls, as well as the University at Buffalo.
"We tried to keep them warm, get them some food and give them a not very comfortable cot to sleep on," Pouli said. "If they were safe, had food and power at their home, we were able to get them out today."
She credited French and others with providing essential help, noting that one family near the shelter was continually supplying food and Christmas cookies to those inside.
"Joel was an amazing volunteer, shuttling people back and forth," Pouli said. "Everybody pulled together."
In Buffalo, Gramaglia said police had to carefully weigh when to allow snowmobile volunteers to go to work because of the hazardous condition, after issuing appeals via social media that constitutes part of the city's emergency planning.
"We had to wait for it to be safe. We didn't want to add to the problem," Gramaglia said. "We didn't want to bring them out in terrible conditions and have to make more rescues."
Once the sled operators reported, they were assigned responsibilities through the D District command center.
"A lot of snowmobilers were calling to offer assistance ... but we wanted to make sure they were helping in a way that was useful for us but also that was safe for them," Brown said.
Gramaglia added that police often face a major challenge in dealing with "self-responders" who take it upon themselves to report to disasters.
"If we don't know you're out there, it's not doing us any good, so we were very coordinated in how that was going to work out," he said.
The mayor, meanwhile, noted the need for police to respond to deaths attributed to the storm as well as natural deaths as part of the toughest duties they encountered during the emergency.
"I have nothing but great things to say about the response of city employees to this very dangerous and deadly storm," he said.