More Snow Disaster Planning is Needed, Says UB Disaster Expert

Release Date: October 23, 2006

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 the past."

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 storm."

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."

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