“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it” is the famous quote, attributed alternately to Mark Twain or Charles Dudley Warner, a Connecticut newspaper editor. More than a century later, a reliable way to do something about the weather is still not fully realized, although some scientists are working on it.
And as storms with a strength and fury that once ravaged regions of the United States only once in a generation become more common, cities and states are keen to learn from them — and improve local preparations and responses before the next disaster occurs.
The latest search for answers is taking place at NYU Wagner at the request of the City of Buffalo after a snowstorm rolled in like a locomotive in late December 2022, dumping up to 49 inches of snow in western New York. 44 people lost their lives – some were found in snowdrifts, others in frozen cars or houses. The ferocity of the whiteout surprised even long-time residents, with its speed and force surpassing even the devastating Buffalo Winter Storm of 1977, which prompted then-President Jimmy Carter to declare the first-ever national disaster triggered by snow.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown recently announced that Wagner’s Rudin Center for Transportation, led by Sarah Kaufman, will conduct a review to identify strengths and gaps in the city’s preparations and responses, and what steps could be taken to address them to prepare the region for future weather events of this magnitude.
While research for the release of an “After-Action” report is just underway, Kaufman notes that urban planning for natural disasters in the United States has evolved for years, and such changes as modernized and expanded sewage systems, additional stockpiles of salt, and Plows, augmented forces, and even roadbed heaters.
Kaufman, who teaches urban planning and researches urban mobility, worked on a similar analysis of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated and shook the New York City subway area a decade ago. Their transport-related recommendations for public capital investment included adding emergency power for subway drainage pumps, introducing more porous pavement, and moving emergency generators and fuel sources to higher floors in flood-prone areas.
NYU News sat down with Kaufman to discuss the Buffalo review.
What is your task exactly and when do you think it will be completed?
We’re tasked with looking at the recent blizzard and how Buffalo handled preparation, response and recovery. Because Mayor Brown requested the study, we hope to provide actionable insights to help Buffalo determine exactly how it’s prepared for the next storm.
The project is led by the Rudin Center for Transportation, but we also work with the Institute for Civil and Infrastructure Systems, also housed at NYU Wagner, and the C2SMART Center at NYU Tandon. We also work with some alumni who live in Buffalo. We plan to present the results in early spring, which will be publicly available.
The emergency communications provided during Hurricane Sandy proved critical in saving lives and getting the New York area moving again. What should communication for a natural disaster look like now?
Much like the media we consume, the shows we watch and the news we receive every day, there is no central or single communication platform. As such, public communications must be widespread and use all forms of media: television, radio, social media including TikTok, phone alerts, neighborhood and community groups, and physical and digital signage in popular locations. The only way to get the word out is to reach people where they are. That was part of the lesson from Sandy and more recent natural disasters.
Continued reliance on freeways and roads also suggests the need for an early warning system to keep people off them, similar to tornado-prone areas where people are advised to go downstairs as the tornado approaches.
Did the Buffalo Blizzard—with its tremendous speed, blinding winds, and massive rainfall—remind you of other big storms you’ve watched?
Many people have compared this blizzard to Buffalo’s similar storm in 1977. Interestingly, this event contributed to the creation of FEMA, as did the uncoordinated response to the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania in 1979. FEMA was created, of course, to help a distressed area.
California began 2023 with an “atmospheric flow” that caused coastal flooding, while Hurricane Sandy was of course a catastrophic event in New York City. Although the rainfall in these events varied (snow or rain), many of the needs of emergency management are the same: informing the public of hazards, responding to power and communications outages, dispatching and assisting emergency responders, rescuing and caring for residents, and then recover from the damage.
Historically, cities and states have not always been quick to adapt with robust storm sewers, buildings, zoning, and transportation and infrastructure. But now we have entered the era of climate change, and natural disasters of all kinds are occurring more frequently.
Storm systems are indeed changing, creating more frequent and more intense storms.
Recently, New York City was hit by Hurricane Ida, which struck several states in October 2021. Apparently, Ida brought rain rather than snow, but it resulted in dozens of deaths. It was so intense that many places were not prepared for the amount of rain that fell in such a short time. In New York City, Ida led its first-ever citywide flash flood warning. The subway system has been flooded, and in sometimes surprising locations, given forecasts were based on historically different storm systems. So as cities build more resilient infrastructure, they may still be outperformed by storms that take on new forms.
Do you think lessons from western New York can be addressed relatively inexpensively?
Communicating with the public on a variety of platforms has low marginal costs but potentially high returns. Although officials may wish to deliver their messages via network messaging, many younger people increasingly do not have televisions in their homes. Ideally, official news would reach them via social media apps based on their location — which the apps collect independently — to provide urgent security updates.
But other types of redevelopment, I imagine, also require long-term capital investments.
The initial cost of storm shelters is often high, requiring a variety of rugged snow removal and emergency vehicles for different road types, large amounts of salt and sand, workers, and of course, damage control. However, the benefit is the protection of local residents and reduced recovery times and costs.
Are there new technologies that might be helpful?
In some places, like Sweden, some road beds are heated to help melt ice and snow. Such a capital investment can really help improve transportation in an emergency and result in a reduction in clearance costs and labor when a storm hits.