The historic Christmastime blizzard in Buffalo was unprecedented for many reasons. While the aging services network is experienced in disaster response, the unique demands of this storm found state and local governments pivoting quickly and addressing the needs of the moment.
This “once-in-a-generation” event was a rare combination of intense snowfall – four feet in just a few days – and hurricane-force winds that reached as high as 70 miles per hour. The blizzard began on Friday, December 23, dropping a reported 22.3 inches of snow in just one day. It wasn’t until Tuesday, December 27 that the storm began to subside.
Preparing at the Local Level
As with all anticipated significant weather events affecting older adults and their families, NYSOFA reached out to the county’s Area Agency on Aging (AAA) ahead of the storm to see if the county agency needed any support and to learn about its pre-storm preparations. Like the area’s prior winter storm, in November, the Erie County Department of Senior Services had acted on its advance-storm protocols, explained Angela Marinucci, Commissioner of Senior Services at Erie County.
In a place like Buffalo, which is accustomed to severe weather, “there’s a level of uncertainty about whether people will take things as seriously as we do,” Marinucci said. Therefore, the messaging to older adults and their families focused on what made this storm different. In the county’s pre-storm outreach “we talked a lot about high wind,” she added. “Blizzards are not as common, even though a lot of snow is. We knew it was going to be bad, with likely power outages.”
In the days prior, Erie County AAA staff contacted all home-delivered meal clients and individuals with transportation needs (particularly dialysis patients). Working with its vendors, the county ensured that approximately 2,400 home-delivered meal clients were provided with an advance supply of shelf-stable food, sometimes known as “blizzard boxes.” The agency made wellness calls to other older adults deemed most vulnerable. In one case, the Department identified a client who was running low on oxygen, expecting a delivery on Friday. Through the AAA’s outreach, its county’s Emergency Operations Center was able to arrange delivery a day earlier. Also, transportation clients were advised about rescheduling routine medical or non-emergency appointments to avoid travel during the storm.
NYSOFA Organizes Volunteers to Assist
Disaster response is very much a partnership among levels of government. NYSOFA stood ready to assist Erie County officials once a clear need emerged. In this situation, NYSOFA organized a multi-agency state-level team to help catalog and triage over 1,200 messages left on the Erie County Snow Emergency Hotline, calling all 1,200 people on Christmas Day to check the status of their situation and if it had resolved. In addition, this team made approximately 300 wellness calls to vulnerable older adults. This effort helped free up Erie County staff so that they could answer live calls coming into the hotline.
“When activated, we respond and led a multi-agency team,” said Rose Golden, Deputy Director of NYSOFA’s Local Program Operations (LPO), which oversaw the NYSOFA support effort.
Whenever New York’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is activated, a team at NYSOFA is deployed. “We are almost always activated because older adults are vulnerable and historically have been disparately impacted during crisis events,” Golden said.
NYSOFA’s core mission is to serve older adults and their families. However, specific needs may arise that require action to assist individuals of all ages needing support. Many who need assistance might not be AAA clients.
“In this instance, we were able to provide direct service to all clients and we were able to pivot,” Marinucci said of the partnership with NYSOFA.
When “New York State called and said we have staff on standby, it was incredible,” Marinucci added. “We can’t thank them enough for trusting what we said we needed – and acting. To know that there was support from New York State to help us get through this, it allowed the Erie County staff on the ground to handle the live phone lines. I firmly believed that saved lives.”