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Buffalo blizzard fuels racial and class divides in polarized city

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/29/2022 Brianna Sacks
Dec. 27 | Buffalo, N.Y. Residents on Woodside Drive clear snow from the street. © John Normile/Getty Images Dec. 27 | Buffalo, N.Y. Residents on Woodside Drive clear snow from the street.

As Buffalo begins to dig itself out from its deadliest disaster in a decade, the plights of people stuck for days in frigid homes without much food, their streets still unplowed, have reignited deep economic and racial fault lines that have long polarized the city.

Authorities said Thursday that 39 people have died so far, 31 of them in the city of Buffalo alone. Most of them were found outside, while some died in their homes, and a handful were trapped in their cars. The majority of those who died were people of color. While Blacks make up 14 percent of Erie County residents and 33 percent of those living in Buffalo, they account for 51 percent of those found dead in the county so far.

Officials say they will find more dead in the coming days. A spokesman from the city could not be reached for comment Thursday about the demographics of residents who died in the storm.

As the toll on the city has become clearer, a dozen residents and community leaders said in interviews that structural issues such as poverty, food deserts, poor housing and a lack of investment by government have made the impacts on working-class, Black and Brown neighborhoods much worse. They expressed concerns that surrounding wealthier and Whiter suburbs appeared to be more prepared, their response better coordinated, their power and roads restored faster.

“This area is so heavily impacted by these systemic issues, and it’s largely because of poverty,” Al Robinson, a Christian leader in the community who housed 130 people for four days in his church, said. “And impoverished people happen to be people of color.”


While there is no definitive government information about which areas have received the most attention, activists have collected photos and other information that appear to show yawning disparities in how quickly Black and White areas of the city were plowed. Kate Eskew, a food bank volunteer who lives two blocks away from the Buffalo city line in Kenmore, a small village that is 85 percent White and has a much higher median income than its neighbor, said plows have been going up and down her streets for days.

The Washington Post tried to check the Buffalo’s plowing data with a system that uses cameras and GPS to show where the trucks have been, but many of the live feeds were either disabled or said “no live camera at this time” on Wednesday. Buffalo Common Councilmember Joe Golombek Jr. said the same thing to a resident in a Facebook comment late last night. The Post requested plowing data from Erie County, but it was not immediately provided.

Meanwhile, Buffalo was under a driving ban until midnight Thursday because many of its streets were still clogged, preventing people from getting groceries and medication. In predominantly Black parts of the city, like the East Side, many residents still can’t leave their homes. Twelve-foot snow drifts still cover windows.

Buffalo’s slow, haphazard plowing and response has also drawn the ire of county leaders.

During a news conference Wednesday, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said that his team and the state have taken over operations for one-third of the city because they knew “that we could get in there and clean it very quickly.” They are now having conversations about taking over all snowplow operations in the future.

“I think it’s apparent that it’s time for that to happen,” Poloncarz said. “Storm after storm after storm, the city unfortunately is the last one to be open, and that shouldn’t be the case. It’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth.”

Buffalo is one of the nation’s poorest cities, highly segregated, and it has been hit especially hard this year, and by the pandemic. Its residents have already endured a record-breaking snowstorm, as well as a racist massacre at a supermarket in a historically Black neighborhood. And now, it is facing a historic weather disaster that left many already hard-hit neighborhoods without power, food, and health-care access for days.

In 2020, nearly 147,000 of the city’s 270,000 residents were on food stamps. Many live in old buildings with poor insulation, and spend half their wages or more on rent. Nearly 30 percent have some kind of disability. The city’s health statistics are far more dire than Erie County and the state in premature deaths and ER visits for conditions like asthma and diabetes, according to a 2021 health report.

Some activists and residents have been lambasting Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, who is Black, for comments he has made in the aftermath of the storm, describing them as victim blaming. In a news conference on Dec. 26, the mayor said officials had warned residents about the conditions, telling them to buy their groceries ahead of time and move up travel plans.

“We were prepared,” he said. “The forecasts did come early.”

“The forecast of a once-in-a-generation storm was accurate, and that was communicated to the public,” he added.

(Some people on Twitter pointed out that Brown did not mention stocking up on food and water, instead referencing only “holiday and personal errands.”)

On Facebook and in interviews, residents and activists have expressed frustration with Brown’s leadership. He has not been on the ground, not reached out to community members, not offered solutions on how to get basic necessities, Robinson, a pastor, and other volunteers said. Robinson said the mayor was “missing in action.”

“Mayor Brown? I haven’t heard from him. I’ve been getting calls from the Times of London, but I haven’t heard from my mayor,” Robinson said. “He or our governor have not reached out to anyone here. When these catastrophes hit, it’s like, where is the plan?” The office of Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) did not respond to a request for comment.

Brown, a five-term Democratic incumbent, who recently won a contentious reelection as a write-in candidate with the help of Republicans, has defended his handling of the crisis.

In an interview with The Washington Post, he vehemently denied allegations from volunteers and activists that he failed to prepare and respond to his residents. The mayor said that he and a spate of police, plow drivers, and other officials have been on the ground conducting wellness checks, clearing roads, and that a local bank and grocery store have been delivering food since Monday.

“I have no clue what you are talking about, or who these volunteers are or what they are talking about,” the mayor said. “This was a historic storm. This should not have come as a surprise. I absolutely think residents were adequately prepared.”

While he says he empathizes with people’s anger, noting that he ran out of power for 24 hours and it was “deeply uncomfortable,” he said that “everything that could have been done in the lead-up to the storm, and during the storm was done.”

Activists have taken particular offense at Brown’s focus on residents responsibility for their own livelihoods, people ransacking stores, as well as authorities diverting resources to arresting looters while there are long wait lines for food delivery.

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown in June. © Mary Altaffer/AP Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown in June.

“Buffalo is one of the poorest midsize cities in the country, and the citizens here have been in a constant state of survival,” Jillian Hanesworth, Buffalo’s poet laureate, said. “Using his time to address the people to say ‘I told you so’ was tone deaf to say the least.”

This week, Brown has gone after those breaking into stores after the storm, calling them the “lowest of the low,” “reprehensible,” and saying that “they’re not just looting food and medicine, they are looting personal items.”

In response, Buffalo police said that they had to take resources away from recovery efforts to go after thieves while residents are still missing, a move that also spurred backlash and anger. They created an anti-looting task force and Brown touted that authorities have arrested eight people so far.

The dozen other volunteers and activists also said that this storm has emphasized Buffalo’s racial and economical fault lines.

The city’s C-District and East Side, poorer and Blacker neighborhoods, were the last to get plowed, residents and church leaders there said. Residents of subsidized housing complexes were unable to get out for days, three community leaders said. Seniors in government-sponsored housing were stuck in flooded apartments without power, they added. Videos on Facebook show run-down hallways filled with water, wires hanging from the ceilings.

People in the community are exhausted, advocates said, because they have been the ones picking up the pieces after cascading crises. Many were still rebounding from November’s storm, still haven’t had a warm meal, and now have to think about their furnaces flooding as upcoming warmer temperatures threaten to melt the mounds of snow outside their windows.

Robinson has barely slept since last Thursday. He and his wife, Vivian, have been caring for families in their church for nearly a week.

Over the weekend, families had no other choice but to go out in the cold because they were coming home from work, needed to get out of their old, 19th-century apartments with faulty heat, or were trying to get more than a few days worth of food at the last minute, the pastor said.

“People in this area are nurses, firefighters, blue-collar folks that live paycheck to paycheck,” Robinson said. “To say that they should get two weeks of groceries is an impossible request for many.”

The ramifications of not being able to prepare have been disturbing for those helping out in the community. Community activists Myles Carter and David Louis Hall said they’ve been shaken as they have delivered food and helped residents with transportation and other needs.

On Saturday afternoon, they recalled in a joint interview, they hiked through three feet of snow to get to a very old, run-down back house located on the East Side, two blocks away from the Tops supermarket where a racist gunned down 10 people last May. When they entered, it was colder inside than out, and the smell of burning paper was overwhelming.

In the living room, a mother of four teenagers was burning magazines and other scraps to keep warm. They had just run out of food, and had been cooking what was left in their pantry over a cinder block because the stove had been broken before the blizzard hit.

“People said they called for help, and no one was coming,” Carter, a Black Lives Matter activist who recently ran for Erie County sheriff, said. “Our leaders have a reputation for being ill-prepared.”

Daniel Shafer walks through the snow in Buffalo's Elmwood Village neighborhood on Dec. 26. © Craig Ruttle/AP Daniel Shafer walks through the snow in Buffalo's Elmwood Village neighborhood on Dec. 26. Matmun Israel outside Faithful Stones Church on East Utica Street in Buffalo on Dec. 28. © Joseph Cooke/AP Matmun Israel outside Faithful Stones Church on East Utica Street in Buffalo on Dec. 28.

Carter and Hall have been watching Buffalo’s structural imbalance unfold again and again over the last few years, they said, their Facebook and TikTok pages chronicling their work.

The two met during the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020, became friends, and then created a resource group. They provided their community with transportation, food, water, and other support during the months of protests. They did the same thing after the mass killing at Tops in May, after last month’s severe winter storm, and again during the current crisis.

The pair has helped extricate, transport, or feed about 20 people, said Cariol Horne, a 55-year-old resident who is working with them. Most have needed medical assistance and food, and many of them are elderly, living in dilapidated facilities largely left by themselves. While they’ve been all over the city, they said the East has been the worst.

“We have to focus on self-sufficiency, that’s what the message of this storm has been,” said Carter. “We keep us safe. That’s what we keep having to do.”

Buffalo Housing Authority complexes in the eastern part of the city are in especially bad shape, Hall and Carter said. The streets around Langfield Homes, which has a history of neglect, still had not been plowed, despite being on a main road “that should have been plowed by now,” Carter said.

Carter, a home inspector, lives in the neighboring town of Tonawanda, a predominantly White, middle-class area. There, he said, streets are plowed and salted, and power was quickly restored.

Standing on her front porch in Kenmore, a village in Tonawanda, Eskew, the food bank volunteer who is White, described cars driving back and forth on the visible black asphalt. Two blocks away, Buffalo’s streets remain frozen. Her daughter, who lives 10 minutes away in North Buffalo, hasn’t been able to get home because of the impassable roads.

Carter took a video early Saturday morning driving on clear roads in Amherst, where electrical technicians, plowers, ambulances and other responders have been stationed, showing the power on.

Robinson, Carter, and other community activists think that a big reason there were so many people outside during the most dangerous hours of the blizzard was because they realized how bad it was going to be and were trying to find somewhere safer, like a shelter.

Mike DeGeorge, a Buffalo city spokesperson, said the several shelters that were open across the city hit max capacity quickly and stayed that way. Police and fire stations had to open their doors to house hundreds of people.

Kenneth Washington was one of them. For the past six months, he has alternated between sleeping on the streets or in a bus to avoid the usually crowded homeless shelters. But this time, he beelined for one of only two warming centers, which was choked with scores of others without heat in their homes or a roof over their heads.

“Nobody here or anywhere else is adjusted for a storm like this,” Washington said. “Nobody was ready for it.”

Dino Grandoni and Emily Wax-Thibodeaux contributed to this report.

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