Kathy Hochul’s fatal slow-to-act error in Buffalo winter storm

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What’s worse — a governor who obsesses over natural disasters, and isn’t shy about exercising the full power of the state, and then some, to lessen their harm, or a governor who minimizes a storm’s potential impact until it’s too late?

With at least 37 people dead in Christmas weekend’s Buffalo snowstorm, New Yorkers are grimly learning of a big difference between former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Gov. Hochul: a failure to issue a firm travel ban before the storm hit cost lives.

Whether a hurricane or a blizzard, there’s one easy rule about storms: if you don’t live in an evacuation zone, staying home can save your life. People should not drive around, or walk around, in major storms, as the tragic case of 22-year-old nursing assistant Anndel Nicole Taylor, who died in her car after being trapped for 18 hours, makes clear; several others met the same fate.

You are never going to keep everyone off the road, but with people busy, distracted and inundated with constant warnings of crises that (sometimes) don’t materialize, travel bans are effective at getting a message across: this is dangerous.

If you wait until a storm has begun, or you wait until mid-morning when people have taken to the roads and then need to get back to where they came from, it’s too late. And if you just suggest that people don’t travel, employers will still expect people to come to work.

winter storm
People are encouraged to stay home during severe winter storms to avoid risking and harming their lives.
ZUMAPRESS.com

Cuomo was famous for his travel bans — and for instituting them before a storm hit badly. He had to learn from one mistake: in 2014, the state was slow to shut down the Thruway, not issuing the edict until after heavy snow had begun to fall upstate.

In 2015, though, he shut down New York City’s subways and regional roads well ahead of a storm what was supposed to bring three feet of snow. A year later, he ordered all non-emergency vehicles off city roads ahead of another storm. In 2017, he forbade travel in Broome County as a storm moved in.

And when, sometimes, a storm failed to materialize, as in 2015, he bore the criticism that he had overreacted.

Hochul knows the drill, or should: in November, she, too, closed upstate highways ahead of a storm.

Days of dire forecasts

Yet inexplicably, in this storm, despite days of forecasters’ warnings, Hochul failed to issue a broad regional travel ban ahead of the blizzard.

On the 22nd, the day before the snowfall, she announced a ban on only commercial vehicles on the Thruway, and other limited closures.

buffalo new york winter storm
Vehicles are left stranded on the road following a winter storm that hit the Buffalo area.
ZUMAPRESS.com

Her main holiday-travel message was just a suggestion, with the state “urging” people to either leave that night, or wait until Sunday.

Most roads didn’t close until after the storm.

There was thus no clear, unequivocal, Cuomo-style message: stay off the roads, or else.
Without the governor asserting control, whether and when to issue a travel ban was left up to county and local officials, and the county didn’t ban travel until mid-Friday morning, after the storm had begun and after people were out.

Without being told by the governor to stay shut, some businesses indeed expected their workers to show up, and some people went out to patronize those businesses.

Cuomo sometimes came under justified criticism for usurping local officials’ power during a crisis (or not during a crisis), but ahead of a storm is when you need one clear message from above, not little-heeded county and local officials dithering and delaying.
So what stopped Hochul from issuing a travel ban?

Fatigue with COVID-19 restrictions, which have made everyone into a mini-libertarian? Not a good reason: storm closures are short.

Fear over a left-wing backlash over police enforcement? The state wouldn’t have to enforce a travel ban. Just issuing one would send a clear enough message, and make it clear that people who ignored it were driving or walking at their own risk.

Anndel Taylor is among the victims in the deadly snowstorm.
Anndel Taylor is among the victims in the deadly snowstorm.
Facebook/uicyBichy Brown

Or fear of a backlash of telling people not just that they shouldn’t travel, but that they couldn’t travel, just ahead of the Christmas holiday, when people wanted one last shopping day, and businesses wanted their spending?

All good questions for New Yorkers to ask.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

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