Unheeded Lessons From the Buffalo Blizzard Gov. Kathy Hochul is determined to make New York even less prepared to save lives when the next weather disaster strikes.

March 10, 2023

Originally published by American Spectator. Written by 

The Buffalo blizzard of 2022 has notched itself in the record books as one of the most devastating winter storms in American history. The event reminds us of our tenuous well-being amid meteorological cruelty and of the instrumental role energy and technology play in securing human life through perilous conditions.

Friday, Dec. 23, began for Buffalonians as a relatively warm day, with the mercury rising to 40 degrees Fahrenheit before noon, 5 degrees above the daily average. Despite vociferous warnings from the National Weather Service and local officials of impending whiteout conditions, the morning temperatures lured many people — being hardy Buffalonians — from home. By early afternoon, temperatures and barometric pressure readings had plummeted, however, and heavy snow soon enveloped the city while wind gusts approached 80 miles per hour. Those gusts swirled falling and fallen snow into a blinding mess. Friday, Dec. 23’s 22 inches ranked it fourth on Buffalo’s list for snowfall in a total day, but the city’s concerns were only then beginning to mount.

On Saturday, Dec. 24, the temperature dropped to 4 degrees Fahrenheit and never rose above 14 degrees Fahrenheit while the wind continue to whip. Extraordinarily, the blizzard sustained its intensity for 37 hours, persisting throughout Christmas Eve. While the storm began to weaken Christmas Day, it remained situated over Buffalo’s corner of Lake Erie and lake-effect snow bands continued to blast the city intermittently through Monday, Dec. 26. By the time the storm dissipated, Buffalo had recorded more than 50 inches of snow over the course of the four-day event, putting the season’s snowfall above full winter averages before the calendar even flipped to January.

As the city dug out through the final week of the year, the scale of the damage and the tragedy became evident. According to an update from Buffalo’s utility provider on Wednesday, Dec. 28, the extreme wind and weight of the snow damaged 137 transformers and downed 148 poles, leaving 108,000 homes and businesses without power for at least some duration. By Dec. 31, Buffalo and its suburbs attributed more than 40 deaths to the storm. While the particulars vary, the most common fatal scenario involved individuals leaving shelter, either in cars or on foot, and then becoming disoriented by the whiteout conditions, lost or trapped, and ultimately succumbing to hypothermia in the frigid conditions.

Horrific as the human toll was, that the number of fatalities did not mount higher is a testament to modern forecasting, digital, and energy technologies. As early as 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 21, the National Weather Service’s Buffalo station declared that the coming system was a “once-in-a-generation storm,” and advises the city of a flash freeze, wind gusts greater than 65 miles per hour, heavy lake-effect snow lasting through Monday, localized whiteouts, wind chills 10 to 20 degrees below zero, treacherous to impossible travel, and possible widespread power outages due to downed lines.

Beyond the accurate forecast its computer models provided, throughout the storm the station continued to deliver updates directly to Buffalonians via Twitter, showing the indispensable value of the much-maligned site in times of crisis. Facebook, too, proved of crucial importance, offering a platform for stranded, hungry, and/or freezing people to connect with helpful neighbors and volunteers, even as the city’s official emergency services were overwhelmed and themselves stranded at times. While the need for heat is of obvious importance in a blizzard, all of these technologies demand electricity. Without power, and without the reliable fuels that provide it, the human cost of this storm could have been dreadfully higher still.

The episode underscores the critical importance of energy systems to human preparedness for and resilience against nature’s vagaries. Fuel for heating, transportation, and power is what enables us to survive amid adverse conditions.

We do not know precisely how low temperatures will fall in winter, nor where they will be worst, but we know that human survival is dependent on staying warm and on powering machines. Disasters like the Buffalo blizzard highlight the folly of policies that make energy harder to come by. While in this event, Buffalo was able to avoid load shedding (i.e., intentional power cuts due to limited supply), New York’s antipathy to reliable and affordable energy from natural gas and nuclear power makes an energy catastrophe more likely the next time the state faces an intense bout of cold weather and demand challenges capacity.

The Empire State’s imprudence is exemplified by its stances on natural gas and nuclear energy. On natural gas, the state government has robbed New Yorkers of the economic and energy security benefits that have accrued to neighboring Pennsylvanians from the development of the Marcellus shale play by barring natural gas infrastructure expansion and hydraulic fracturing within the state’s borders. Among its most notorious actions are the blocks and hold-ups against the Constitution and Northern Access pipelines. Meanwhile, the state has also spurned its baseload workhorse, nuclear energy, unnecessarily closing the Indian Point plant that previously provided a quarter of New York City’s power in 2021. Spurning capacity from nuclear and limiting how much natural gas can flow into and be produced within the state will imperil it in winters to come.

Under Gov. Kathy Hochul, New York has doubled down on the errors of her disgraced predecessor. By 2030, the Empire State will require that electric utilities procure 70 percent of their generation from renewable sources; by 2040, that number will rise to 100 percent. While the requirements are inclusive of essential hydropower, new hydro is not forthcoming, which means the state will be ludicrously overreliant on wind and solar power that require nature’s cooperation. Hochul’s suggestion that the state and its counties “prepare for the next big one” rings hollow given that her preferred policies undermine that preparation.

An ironic unintended consequence of New York’s natural gas blockade is the impact it has on nearby New England. Since the New England states are closed off from the rest of the country by the boundary New York creates, any new natural gas pipelines to New England would require New York’s sign-off. In its absence, New England has resorted with increasing frequency to the burning of fuel oil when natural gas supplies are stretched thin in winter. During the recent cold snap, fuel oil was the leading generation source, at more than 40 percent of the total, for stretches of time. The irony is that New York’s anti-gas policy is ostensibly designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but emissions from fuel oil power generation are significantly higher than those from natural gas. Thus, New York’s policies are both weakening resilience against weather while also increasing emissions when Old Man Winter bears down on the region.

While we can hope that the Buffalo blizzard was indeed a once-in-a-generation event, what is within our purview is recalibrating our environmental policy discussions to make certain human life is not put into predictable peril. If Gov. Hochul has a genuine desire to prepare the state for adverse conditions, the sensible thing would be to rethink New York’s energy trajectory. Natural gas and nuclear power are effective, affordable energy sources that the state and the region require to keep warm and to keep life-saving technologies in operation when they are needed most.