Buffalo winter storm deaths reaches 34. Why is the death toll so high?


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At least 34 people have died following a blizzard in the county that comprises Buffalo, New York, a city that sees an average of roughly 95 inches of snow a year.  

Why did so many people die – and what should have been done differently?

Here are three reasons the storm was so deadly. 

Latest updates: Buffalo storm death toll increases to 34; feds open inquiry into power outages

Officials may have waited too long to ban travel

The county didn’t ban road travel until shortly before the storm hit, according to reporting by the Washington Post. The ban was issued around 9:30 a.m. on Friday. Many people were already en route to work, determined to get their paychecks ahead of the holiday weekend. A lot of people reportedly died outside or stuck in their cars.

Some observers have also pointed to insufficient emergency resources, such as staffing challenges, funding cuts and outdated equipment.

In a news conference Wednesday, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz criticized the city’s response to the blizzard, calling it “embarrassing.” 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is conducting a joint inquiry with North American Reliability Corporation, an Atlanta-based energy compliance nonprofit, investigating the blackouts that affected millions of American households as part of the recent winter storm. 

USA TODAY reached out to city, county and state officials for comment.

Hurricane-force winds create deadly conditions

The blizzard was predicted and proved to be a once-in-a-generation event. Buffalo hasn’t suffered a storm this lethal since at least 1950. Reed Timmer, a veteran meteorologist and storm chaser, described it as “the worst blizzard I have ever covered.” 

The storm’s devastation was in part due to its fierce combination of snow, wind and cold temperatures, as well as the fact that conditions escalated quickly. 

Wind gusts moving as fast as 79 miles per hour were recorded in the area six minutes after the county travel ban went into effect. By then, thousands of people had already lost power.  

Poloncarz on Wednesday called the blizzard “paralyzing.” “This was an extreme blizzard, maybe the Category Five of blizzards,” he said. It was “hurricane-force winds for 24 hours with no visibility, just a few feet.”

Buffalo – one of the country’s snowiest cities – is no stranger to extreme winters. Its residents and officials are accustomed, and perhaps inured, to blizzards. Erie County Sheriff John Garcia on Tuesday acknowledged officials underestimated the threat of the storm.

People weren’t prepared and infrastructure is aging

Buffalo is one of the country’s poorest cities. Countless residents lack the infrastructure and amenities needed to withstand such a devastating blizzard. Meanwhile, funding for public facilities has been uneven, and feeble power grids have left many without electricity for days.

Mark Wysocki, a New York State climatologist and meteorologist at Cornell University, said aging infrastructure – both in public facilities and people’s homes –  may have fueled the storm’s death toll. Individuals may have fled their houses because of faulty electricity, for example, only to get stuck in a white-out without having prepared. 

Wysocki stressed it is important to store blankets, flashlights and hoses in the car during the winter. People who are stuck should run their cars periodically but not continuously to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, he said.

Scientists: Climate change won’t make winter storms and blizzards go away.

Prior to the arrival of the storm Thursday evening, Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a State of Emergency for the entire state, which remains in place. 

Did climate change play a role?

Experts say climate change has contributed to the growing intensity of extreme weather events such as the Buffalo blizzard. Here are some other historic snow events in the area: 

  • In January 1966, 103 inches of snow fell over four and a half days, with 50 inches in just one day. 
  • During a January 1977 blizzard, there was snowfall as high as 100 inches over five days, with wind gusts ranging up to 69 mph
  • In December 2001, 127 inches of snow dropped over six days
  • In February 2007, 141 inches of snow landed in more than 10 days



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