OSWEGO, NY – With I-90 reopened, Oswego County’s trucks and manpower ready to return home, and The Buffalo News reporting a ‘Shovel Brigade Mob’ has descended on South Buffalo neighborhoods, Oswego County Emergency Management Director Dale Currier described the government mobilization process in a situation like last week’s fatal snowstorm.
“If the storm was here we would want, not only the government officials, but the public to understand how it works because well meaning efforts by individuals or groups can really screw things up,” Currier told Oswego County Today on Friday (Nov. 21).
Over the course of three days, the communities of South Buffalo were subjected to a relentless lake effect snow storm that left it buried under 5-8 feet of snow, according to the National Weather Service.
More than a dozen deaths have been blamed on the brutal storm, many attributed to heart problems from shoveling and pushing cars.
In the first days after the snow stopped early reports said at least 30 roofs had collapsed.
In getting help to communities when they are faced with such dire circumstances, Currier explained that the way the management process works for any disaster starts and ends at home with the local municipality.
“New York State is a home-rule state, so the local government is responsible to manage the incident,” he said. “In the case where you have a city or a township that doesn’t have the resources they need to battle the situation, then it reaches up to the next higher government level, which is the county.”
For example locally if a disaster were to hit either the city of Fulton or Oswego, or any of the villages, towns, and that specific community did not have the manpower or equipment to manage the disaster, the city, town or village officials would reach out to the leaders in Oswego County government for help.
“The city of Buffalo went to Erie County the instant the magnitude of this whole storm was beyond the city’s level,” Currier said. “Then, the county emergency manager – in Oswego County it would come to me, if the county cannot provide all the resources, then I would reach out to the State Office of Emergency Management in Albany.”
Currier noted that the State Emergency Management representatives were already in the Buffalo region prior to the beginning of the three-day snowfall. “They were with the county people right from the beginning,” he said.
After an emergency like the reported 5 – 8 feet of snowfall in Buffalo, municipalities have the power to reach out to commercial businesses to provide needed services. “Those officials would first attempt to hire local providers,” he said.
But in a case like this storm, due to its magnitude, even the addition of the commercial business response was insufficient, so the state then reached out to other counties.
“We got involved after the city of Buffalo went to Erie County, who went to the state, and then they put out a notice to other counties saying, ‘we need resources in the form of loaders, large dump trucks and operators,'” Currier said.
The director noted that the original plea from the Buffalo region was 40 loaders, 40 dump trucks and manpower, but that was an early request sent out to the public sector.
“Understand that the quantity list could have increased as the storm continued,” he added.
Currier noted that prior to the state request for snow removal equipment and manpower that was approved by Oswego County on Thursday, there was an earlier request which went out through the fire service for rescue teams.
“Some of the counties around us, like Cayuga, sent firefighters out west to try and work as part of rescue teams to get people off the thruway,” he said. “That was the first round of requests. … We have a separate fire coordinator. Because that request dealt with fire assets, it went through the fire coordinator’s office.”
Once Oswego County Emergency Management was asked to participate, Currier went through his internal chain of command to determine if the county’s resources could, in fact, be deployed to assist. “I reached out to Highway Superintendent Kurt Ospelt to see what kind of assets we could provide,” the director said.
“I contacted Administrator Phil Church, and Legislator Linda Lockwood as Public Safety Committee chairwoman and Legislature Vice Chairwoman,” he noted, adding that in a home rule state like New York, the person solely responsible in any county for emergency activities is the chief elected official.
“In Buffalo the county executive is the highest ranking elected position,” the director said.
Legislature Chairman Kevin Gardner holds the highest elected position in Oswego County, but Currier said Gardner was away from the area when the director received the initial request.
The emergency management director noted that in almost any disaster, regardless if it’s snow, tornado, hurricane, flood, earthquake or fire, there is a human instinct to jump immediately into action to help.
Social media outlets, like the Facebook page WNY November 2014 Storm Help, with more than 7,000 members by Friday, are using those media to post availability and need within each neighborhood.
Currier explained that counterintutive to human instinct, one of the primary maxims in emergency management is “thou shalt not self-deploy.”
“When people are sent into an area like Buffalo, first it may be hard to get there, but once there – if hundreds or thousands of people show up to help – you have to have a place for them to eat, to sleep, shower, and locate food and fuel for them,” the director said.
When a region has already been devastated by disaster accommodating those basic needs is not a ready-made scene, and part of emergency management is coordinating those efforts “until the community is ready to receive those outside sources,” he said
Currier relayed an instance during the initial stages of a St. Lawrence emergency when necessary personnel were bunked in the only available places to stay – fire stations and police barracks. “Then we had a busload of 50 people from Long Island show up at 2 a.m., saying, ‘Hi, we’re here to help,'” the director said.
Part of Currier’s challenge as Emergency Services Director is teaching people how to bridge that gap.
In the event of disaster, he said usual methods of contact should be attempted. “First, a person should try to reach out to individuals in the devastated area to see if they are in a place that is safe and habitable,” Currier said. “The good news from Buffalo is that there does not appear to be widespread power outages, so most people still have their phones and their power.”
“If they’re safe, leave them alone. Offer them a place to come, and if they chose – once the roads are open and the transportation is available, then do that,” he said .
He noted that fear driven decisions to relocate unnecessarily could cause further strain on already maxed-out resources.
Currier described a personal experience with his own mother, hours away, where his response to her was to have her call 911.
“That is the way to get the message to the people who can best help you,” he said. “The other piece, and what communities try to impress on residents, is to look-out for your neighbor, check on your neighbor.”
“If there is a person who can’t keep the furnace on because the chimney is clogged, maybe someone in that neighborhood right in that block can come and help mitigate that problem,” Currier said.
He stressed that, depending on conditions, a call to 911 may not be possible, or even reaching 911 may not provide an immediate response.
The director noted that is one reason why individuals have traditionally been advised to be prepared for self-sufficiency for at least three days – and more recently that number has been changed to 5 – 7 days.
“For example in 2007 we got 6 feet of snow overnight in Minetto which took several days to clear,” the director recalled.
Regarding last week’s storms in Buffalo and in Oswego County, Currier noted, “This was a very early season storm. We were fortunate because we didn’t get the kind of lake effect snow off Lake Ontario that they got off Lake Erie, but it’s a great wake-up call for everybody in our communities to take a look at how well prepared we are for a large winter storm here.”
The emergency director reinforced that people should have food and water available; make a plan with family members – if separated how to get in contact with each other, where would they meet; stay informed; and get involved before a disaster strikes.
The Emergency Management Office has more information available on how to be prepared, and Currier recommends the following websites:
The joint Federal Emergency Management Agency/Department of Homeland Security site Ready and its Spanish language version Listo asks individuals to do three key things: (1) build an emergency supply kit, (2) make a family emergency plan and (3) be informed about the different types of emergencies that could occur and their appropriate responses.
FEMA’s website also has information about how to plan and prepare for disaster.