BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In the aftermath of October's historic
snowstorm, Western New Yorkers were painfully reminded of the
widespread destruction that snowy weather can bring, which is why
new steps are needed to avert winter-weather disasters, according
to University at Buffalo professor Ernest Sternberg, who studies
disaster preparedness and response.
Despite the experiences of residents of Western New York, "there
is not much appreciation by federal agencies that snow events can
be very serious emergencies," says Sternberg, Ph.D., professor of
urban and regional planning in the UB School of Architecture and
Planning. "Even in our region, many people have pleasant memories
of riding out deep snows next to a cozy fireplace. We do not
appreciate that our dependence on electrical grids for heating and
keeping our homes dry has made us more vulnerable than we were in
Sternberg gives the example of the 1998 ice storm that isolated
the Adirondacks for days and immobilized Montreal, causing about 30
deaths. He points out that ever more people are elderly or live
alone, and "manage their daily lives by being connected to
technologies and support services, which can be severed in a bad
Buffalo's 1977 snowstorm was the first in history to be declared
a national emergency, Sternberg notes. After that historic storm,
FEMA was willing to issue federal disaster relief for snowstorms,
but after such declarations increased since the late 1990s, FEMA
officials "have informally tried to cut back," Sternberg says, on
the view that places with winter climate should be able to handle
snowstorms. "FEMA may be reluctant to set another precedent with
this year's storm," he says.
Among Sternberg's suggestions is that state and local agencies
conduct winter storm exercises.
"A big snowstorm can create a logistical mess, and coordinating
response across many emergency agencies and municipalities is a
complex problem," Sternberg says. "It is something that should be
practiced, but I'm not aware of any community that is doing
disaster-response exercises for a snowstorm.
"We have disaster-management training for terrorist attacks, flu
outbreaks and hazardous material spills. We need to organize
similar exercises for snowstorm emergencies."
Sternberg is founding president of Protect New York , a new
organization made up of researchers from across the State
University of New York who are developing ways to safeguard New
York State from terrorism and disasters.
An op-ed Sternberg wrote last year for The Buffalo News
described how disastrous a major ice storm in Western New York
could be. Sternberg's hypothetical scenario was frighteningly
similar to what occurred last week across the region: downed power
lines, slick roads with snarled traffic, carbon monoxide poisoning
from generators, elderly and sick people in distress.
In Sternberg's scenario, frigid weather caused danger and death
not evident in last week's snowstorm. He points out, however, that
without advanced planning, escape from frigid conditions -- even
when roads are cleared -- would be very difficult for many
residents of Buffalo, a city that has a lower rate of car ownership
than New Orleans.
Sternberg recommends that local emergency shelters be surveyed
to find out which ones are capable of providing backup power and
heat in the event of a major snowstorm with frigid temperatures.
And he suggests that the New York State Energy Research and
Development Authority (NYSERDA) begin to develop heating and
power-source technologies that would run furnaces in emergencies,
without the need for "dangerous and unwieldy" generators.
Existing technologies -- such as global positioning systems
(GPS) -- should be used to coordinate emergency vehicles,
utility-company trucks and snow- or debris-removal crews, for
faster response at less cost, Sternberg says.
"Obviously snow will continue to be a New York State problem,"
he concludes. "There are steps we should take now to prepare for
the next winter-weather emergency."