A brutal storm about to blast into Western New York may put a damper on trick-or-treating later this week – but that’s the least of the problems local and state officials were concerned with Sunday as they braced for the remnants of Hurricane Sandy to smash into a cold front today.
The prospects of flooding, impassable roads and large-scale power outages were far more pressing concerns.
“The potential devastation from this storm is enormous,” Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy said at a Sunday afternoon news conference in Buffalo to highlight how state and local public safety officials plan to handle the impending storm.
“The most important thing we can ask for is common sense. … It’s going to be just a terrible couple of days.”
The hurricane is expected to hit upstate and Western New York late this afternoon with high winds and heavy rains. Duffy urged people to heed official warnings and not go out unnecessarily, not to travel or “put themselves at risk.”
“Two inches of water can take a car and sweep it away. It doesn’t take that much,” he said, as both he and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz harkened back to Hurricane Irene in late 2011 and other storms that hammered the Southern Tier and nearly wiped out the Village of Gowanda in recent years. “And in this kind of a storm, that two inches of water could accumulate very quickly.”
State transportation workers and other agencies are preparing for what could be a record-setting storm, even as state and local officials from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to Mayor Byron W. Brown warn residents to be safe and sensible to avoid danger from high winds, rain and potential floods.
With Halloween Wednesday, Brown cautioned that trick-or-treating may be postponed if conditions are still bad.
“We’re not saying that we are going to do that, but we are going to be watching the storm very carefully all day Monday and Tuesday,” Brown said. “Do we really want children out trick-or-treating in very heavy rains and high winds, where the gusts could be as high as 50 to 60 miles per hour? I don’t think so.”
Hurricane Sandy, a Category 1 storm that wreaked havoc across the Caribbean before turning north, is lashing coastal areas in the Mid-Atlantic with winds and tidal surges, and it is expected to come ashore in central New Jersey before turning inland. The Garden State, as well as New York City and Long Island, is expected to bear the brunt of the storm before it pushes inland.
As Hurricane Sandy heads west, it’s on a collision course with a winter storm moving east and carrying cold air, with the potential for heavy snow. Experts caution that the combined storm is still hard to predict and could be one of the worst on record, especially because it’s aimed at the nation’s population centers along the Eastern Seaboard.
In Western New York, the National Weather Service is calling for sustained winds of up to 40 mph, with gusts of up to 65 mph out of the north.
“[It’s] unusual to get winds this strong from a northerly direction,” the weather service said. “Trees in this area are anchored against the prevailing west, so strong winds from the north will produce more wind damage than normal.”
Additionally, the service predicts 2 to 2.5 inches of rain from tonight to Tuesday morning – plus lighter rain before and afterward – on already saturated ground.
“We cannot be complacent,” Poloncarz said. “It doesn’t take a lot of water to do a substantial amount of damage.”
Cuomo declared a state of emergency statewide last week so officials could muster all available resources in advance. All 62 counties have now been “activated” in preparation, and Cuomo administration leaders have been dispersed around the state to coordinate with local leadership, Duffy said.
Sunday night, officials also learned President Obama has honored Cuomo’s request for a disaster declaration for New York State.
“We’re just trying to prepare ourselves. First, to prevent as much as we can, and then to be ready for any cleanup and mobilization that will take place with the damage,” Duffy said.
Evacuations took place in New York City on Sunday night, and metro systems shut down in several large East Coast cities.
Amtrak canceled most of its train service in the Northeast effective immediately, including Empire Service and Lake Shore Limited trains through Buffalo, as well as the Northeast Corridor, Northeast Regional, Adirondack, Ethan Allen and Vermonter service. Only the Maple Leaf trains from Toronto to Albany will operate, but they will not go through to New York City.
There are no current plans to close city offices or agencies in Buffalo, according to city spokesman Michael DeGeorge. And C. Douglas Hartmayer, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, said NFTA “has no plan to do anything other than react based on conditions that would prevail,” as far as closing or restricting MetroRail trains and buses or the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
However, Hartmayer said, US Airways, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines all canceled many of their flights out of Buffalo to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington on Sunday night and this morning. JetBlue Airways also is bringing six planes up from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City to Western New York, to get them out of harm’s way.
A sign hung in the bus station in downtown Buffalo that read, “No buses to NYC.”
Patrick Carroll, 22, an Army Reservist from Lock Haven, Pa., was in Western New York for drills and was among those stranded at the station.
Carroll normally has to take four buses to get from Buffalo back home, but he was told Pennsylvania is blocked.
“The woman behind the counter said I could get to Rochester tonight,” he said, “but that I’d probably be stuck there till Wednesday.”
By Sunday night, some local groups were canceling public gatherings for today, , though there was no word on school cancellations for today or Tuesday.
Speaking at Sunday afternoon’s news conference, held at the Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition center on Oak Street, state and local officials said their agencies are coordinating communications and that their emergency operations centers were to be up and running by early today.
The state Department of Transportation is working with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, as well as other state agencies and local emergency management officials, to “monitor the storm’s progress and prepare for potential impacts,” said Darrell F. Kaminski, acting regional director of the state DOT.
The department is getting its equipment ready, organizing crews for tree-chipping and removal of downed limbs or trees from roads, and assigning staff to monitor bridges, culverts and other likely problem spots.
After the storm, the transportation department will help counties and municipalities restore their own transportation systems, and it will provide other local assistance on areas such as bridge inspection, flood assessment, structural analysis and road construction. And the state DOT will “work closely” with utilities.
“We need power lines removed before our crews can go in and open the road, and the utility companies need the road cleaned so they can restore services, so we’ll work hand in hand with them,” Kaminski said.
As for Buffalo, Brown said emergency vehicles have global positioning systems, so officials can dispatch the closest vehicles to handle downed trees or other hazards. All emergency personnel are also certified to use chain saws, “so if there are branches and limbs coming down, we are able to remove those very quickly,” he said.
“We are all going to get hit,” Duffy said. “No area of upstate is really going to be missing this. We just don’t know how much.”