Monday, February 6, 2023

Top Buffalo official blamed for storm-delayed travel ban

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COMMENTARY

The top official in New York’s Erie County said Wednesday that he takes full responsibility for issuing a travel ban that many residents have criticized for coming too late to stop people from driving during last week’s historic storm.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz tweeted that he doesn’t know if placing the ban earlier “would have changed anything, but it was my decision and I take full responsibility.”

The county, which includes Buffalo, announced a travel ban just before 9 a.m. Friday, giving drivers a 41-minute warning as many were driving to work. The ban went into effect minutes before 79 mph winds hit the area. The curfew has become a flashpoint as western New York grapples with the aftermath of a storm that killed at least 37 people in Erie County.

Although county officials had asked people to stay home and for businesses to close, those were just advisories. Last Thursday, the day before the storm, some Residents were pleading with the top emergency official to enact a ban, with more than a dozen people on Facebook and Twitter posting and responding to Poloncarz’s updates that they would still be forced to work given the rush of crazy holiday weekend.

Officials in Erie County provided ongoing recovery updates Dec. 29 after historic storms hit the Buffalo area over the holiday weekend. (Video: Reuters)

Earlier that morning, “life-threatening conditions” and “dangerously strong” winds were sweeping through Buffalo, according to forecasts. In his press conference early Friday, Poloncarz drove home how dangerous the storm would be. Only twice in his tenure had the National Weather Service indicated that a weather event would have an “extreme impact,” he said. Six minutes after the ban went into effect, Poloncarz shared on Facebook that the Weather Service in Buffalo had recorded winds of 72 and 79 mph in the area. Nearly 13,000 people had already lost power.

The executive’s comment is the latest development in growing scrutiny over how officials prepared for a historic storm that they spent plenty of time warning residents about but apparently didn’t properly prepare for.

At a news conference Wednesday, Poloncarz said officials deciding when to issue the driving ban were weighing forecasts showing the storm’s track wouldn’t hit until noon and the need for night-shift workers to be able to return home. . “If anyone is to be blamed, you can blame me,” he said. “I’m the one who has to make the final call on behalf of the county.”

He also criticized Buffalo leaders for failing to quickly and efficiently plow roads so people could get out of their homes and get food and heat. And he accused Mayor Byron W. Brown’s administration of lacking a coordinated local and state response, saying no one from the city has attended any of their daily calls to elected officials.

The county ended up taking over cleanup efforts for about a third of Buffalo, Poloncarz said, and is in discussions with state officials about handling all the plowing for the city during future major storms.

“The mayor will not be happy to hear about this, but storm, after storm, after storm, after storm – the city, unfortunately, is the last to open and it should not be like this,” Poloncarz . said. “It’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth.”

Brown has shrugged off Poloncarz’s warnings and defended his handling of storm preparation and response. In an interview Wednesday, Brown said he feels people’s frustration, anger and fear, but stood by his account that his constituents were “adequately prepared” and “adequately notified.”

“Everything that could have been done in the lead up to the storm and during the storm was done,” the mayor said.

However, residents do not feel that way.

In response to Poloncarz’s tweet addressing his decision to issue the ban, people on Twitter again shared their anger and frustration.

“Absolutely could have changed everything,” replied one user, going on to explain that people had already left for work or to buy supplies when the ban was announced. “If the ban had been made the day before and all the businesses had not even opened on Friday, this would not have happened.”



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