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Erie Co. executive ponders storm decisions

2 On Your Side asked County Executive Mark Poloncarz, "If you had it to do over again - do you think you might have instituted the driving ban sooner?

BUFFALO, N.Y. — With Tuesday's bit of sunshine, people may not have been dwelling on the December blizzard and major November lake effect storm of 2022. But considering who and what we lost it is still a major topic of review and discussion at the state, county, and local levels.

As we continue to seek solutions and see how local political leaders respond to these major weather events, we previously heard from Erie County's DPW and emergency services commissioners. 

And now we have spoken with the Erie County Executive on his decision-making and where we might go from here if and when another blizzard strikes.

2 On Your Side began by asking County Executive Mark Poloncarz, "If you had it to do over again - do you think you might have instituted the driving ban sooner?

"Well - it's easy to Monday morning quarterback but you have to rely on the information that's provided to you at the time. And we had been in contact with the Weather Service repeatedly."

He added "Some people were like -  why didn't you issue the driving ban the night before? Well, the night before through the morning hours until basically around 8:30 in the morning it was 45 degrees and raining. We also asked employers to not open the next day. So it's not as if we said it's gonna be wonderful the next day. We knew it was gonna be bad. We asked them to not open it. They still opened. I don't think the public really took it seriously until Wegmans and Tops announced they were closing."

Moving forward the Buffalo City and County DPW commissioners actually met Monday at the Rath Building to discuss Erie County plowing assistance as it did in December plowing streets south of Broadway. Poloncarz points out.

 "It was expensive. We spent more than $5 million of county dollars in the city of Buffalo. We stand ready to assist the city of Buffalo just like we assisted the city of Lackawanna, the city of Tonawanda. Even though we don't have a responsibility because sometimes they need our help. And we're here to offer it."

Poloncarz also brought up the idea of perhaps more specific early warnings for storms with the Emergency Alert System called I-PAWS for Integrated Public Warning System operated under the guidance of the federal government. 

"It's a system that would go to everybody's phone - similar to an amber alert. Everyone gets it. It also goes to TV and radio. It requires approval from the FCC. We gotta fill out the paperwork with the federal government. We can't do it on our own. We talked about it late that first night - saying if we had known it was really going to be this bad we would have activated the emergency alert system. If we get a similar situation with another type of blizzard with potential hurricane winds and that type of situation we may activate the emergency alert system."

The County executive says Erie County will join with the state's plan to seek out and pay for an independent, outside analysis of the response to the storm. As we have reported the City of Buffalo has requested NYU to perform a similar study of decision-making and actions by officials and supervisors.     

Meanwhile, Poloncarz is also waiting to see if the state's application for FEMA funding assistance is approved in Washington, DC. 

The state of New York is still trying to make the case that just like other major weather disasters around the country there should be some federal assistance for what this area dealt with especially with a major disaster declaration from FEMA and the White House.

Costs for snow removal, actual damage to structures like ECC's Main Campus Buildings, and related expenses are still being tabulated as they try to meet a $35 Million dollar thresh-hold figure for the state as a whole. Erie County's costs alone are projected to be above $15 million. 

Of course, that will not make up for the tragic loss of life from the storm as well, but the Erie County Executive says that just emphasizes how hard this area was hit. Poloncarz says he gets frustrated with explanations he has heard regarding the decision-making of FEMA. 

"Tornado goes through - takes out a neighborhood in Kansas or Iowa and then the same community gets hit with a tornado a month later - FEMA covers it. But they don't do that for snow. And it makes no sense because these storms as we've seen can take many lives as well as cause millions and millions of dollars in damage as well as response costs. And that's why I think it's very important for our government - our federal government to step up to the plate and do what's right and approve this major disaster declaration so that we can move forward. It makes a mockery of the term major disaster if they say this is not a major disaster."

Poloncarz says he'll be in Washington in mid-February and intends to meet with FEMA and other federal officials to press them to help Western New York. He notes his concern with a disaster response catchall phrase he has heard  "no dough for snow - since it melts." 


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