A calamitous blizzard in upstate New York has left at least 39 dead and knocked out power for thousands. The ruinous winter-weather event fell hardest on the 1.1 million people of the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area, who were forced to fend largely for themselves and for each other, as local government agencies fell short.
One man and his neighbors embody the spirited lengths that people took to care for each other: Shaquille Jones was driving with his mother, niece, and sister—who was on crutches with a broken leg—as the storm approached. As the snow began to pile up, his truck got stuck, leaving his family mired for 18 hours because the police, who claimed to be on their way, failed to show up. After eventually being told that help was not on the way, Jones and his family scrambled to find shelter on their own.
Not long after his family was safe and secured, Jones decided he had an obligation to continue helping others in need. “After I figured that God gave me another chance at life, I have to try to save others. Because the police–they told me they weren’t coming, so I could only imagine what they told others,” Jones told CNN.
Shahida Muhammad, her husband, and their one-year-old baby were snowed in their home without power. The infant was in dire need of a ventilator: The husband and wife had spent two consecutive days—without breaks—manually giving their baby breath. Jones had seen the pleas for help that Muhammad had posted online, and sprang to action.
Jones and his friends reached the family’s home and dug the Muhammads out, potentially saving the life of the child. These saviors kept at it, continuing their work for days—purchasing and delivering supplies, giving rides to neighbors, and more.
While Jones and his retinue of do-gooders took on the personal toll and expenses of weathering the conditions and bringing aid to his neighbors, the local government somehow found a way to add to his burden. Jones’s vehicle—the one his family had to escape from after being stuck in it for 18 hours as no help came—was towed after it was pulled from the snow. The town of Amherst, a Buffalo suburb, charged him a $353.44 fee.
Meanwhile, officials have been desperate to deflect all blame for the crisis.
In a press conference earlier this week, five-term Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown—a cog of the New York Democratic Party machine—cited pictures of looters on social media and called them “the lowest of the low.” At the time of his statement, at least 27 people had died in the area due to the storm.
After the Erie County SNOW hotline, used for “non-life threatening but serious situations,” was inundated with 20,000 phone calls, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said residents should stop flooding the hotline and rely on local media and a YouTube broadcast instead. Poloncarz went on to slam Mayor Brown and the city of Buffalo’s response: “The mayor is not going to be happy to hear about it, but storm, after storm, after storm, after storm, the city, unfortunately, is the last one to be opened, and that shouldn’t be the case. It’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth,” he said.
The contradictory priorities of government stakeholders abound. Buffalo is home to a $1.4 billion stadium project that has absorbed $600 million from the state’s coffers, as well as $250 million from Erie County—money that clearly would have been better spent helping the state and county to prepare for the inclement weather that frequently buffets the region. Even a cursory look at Buffalo’s city budget reveals the skewed priorities: The city allocates more than twice as much money to the police than it does to public works.
As residents of the region were left without the assistance their taxpayer dollars were supposed to provide, India Walton, who nearly beat Brown in the last mayoral election, told Democracy Now, “It is everyday people … who are delivering food, who are going and rescuing people, who are going on search missions and doing wellness checks. It is the people of Buffalo, the everyday, hard-working folks of this city, who have been taking care of one another.”