BUFFALO, N.Y. — One hundred and thirty New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen responded to a massive lake-effect snowstorm that hit the Buffalo area.
At the direction of Gov. Kathy Hochul, 60 Soldiers and Airmen, divided into three 20-person initial response forces, were placed on duty at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station the evening of Nov. 17, before the storm.
The towns and counties next to Lake Erie are accustomed to lake-effect snow, which occurs when cold air passes over the warmer water of Lake Erie, picking up moisture and dropping it over land. But the National Weather Service reported snowfall of six feet in some areas from Nov. 18-21.
The Soldiers came from the 105th Military Police Company in Buffalo and the headquarters of the 2nd Squadron, 101st Cavalry Regiment, at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station. Twenty Airmen from the 107th Attack Wing provided debris clearance capability to round out Joint Task Force Lake Effect.
Requests for National Guard support came from the Erie County Emergency Operations Center, commonly called an EOC, as the snow started Nov. 18, according to Maj. Gary Barney, the task force commander.
“JTF Lake Effect received its first mission on the 18th to support Erie County with an LMTV (M1079 high-axle vehicle),” he said. “It was to help rescue stranded motorists and vehicles,” Barney said.
Intense snowfall forced road closures and made travel life-threatening, especially in the worst communities south of Buffalo, according to Daniel Neaverth, the Erie County Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Services commissioner.
The snowfall rate reached three inches per hour, with some places receiving six inches an hour. With 74 inches of snow in Hamburg, the Erie County EOC called in National Guard forces to help first responders with emergency medical transportation Nov. 19.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the Guard helped “pick up and deliver people who require dialysis.”
State and local authorities began initial storm planning with a field response team that included the New York State Department of Transportation, State Police, the New York National Guard and the Thruway Authority.
“They’re doing everything from transporting dialysis patients in the Town of Hamburg here to their appointments, to knocking on doors and making sure that people are safe and trying to help people get through this as best as we can,” Hochul said of the National Guard forces during a Nov. 19 news conference.
There were almost 90 crashes reported through Nov. 19, with about 290 people rescued from roads overnight during the heaviest snowfall, Hochul said.
Additional forces deployed Nov. 19-20 to help remove snow.
The 174th Attack Wing, based in Syracuse, deployed its Oshkosh snow blower — typically used to clear runways and taxiways at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base — to support the state Department of Transportation and clear portions of the New York State Thruway.
Soldiers from the 204th Engineer Battalion and the 152nd Brigade Engineer Battalion deployed with four front-end loaders and eight dump trucks to clear snow from roads.
Additional Humvees and personnel from the 102nd Military Police Battalion in Auburn and the 174th Attack Wing joined the task force Nov. 20 to support local authorities.
The primary concern as the snow ended was the structural integrity of buildings, according to the State Office of Fire Prevention and Control. The state provided a six-person collapse response team to Erie County and National Guard forces partnered with the team to help assess trailer parks.
“There’re 49 mobile home parks within the vicinity of the disaster area, our emergency area. All of them are being checked on personally because there’s a vulnerability,” Hochul said. “You talk about roof collapses, these are not strong roofs, and so we want to make sure that people who hear a single sound know to leave the vicinity immediately.”
National Guard teams helped inspect nine trailer parks Nov. 19, Barney said.
National Guard personnel also cleared snow from fire hydrants to ensure access for fire departments.
The experience Soldiers and Airmen gained serving as part of the state’s COVID-19 response made the mobilization process more efficient, Barney said.
“The COVID experience in the past year helped us immensely because we could utilize personnel that understood the (mobilization) processes,” Barney said. “Generally, in civil support operations, the logistics and administrative procedures can cause significant issues with Soldier care.”
Getting Airmen and Soldiers in before the storm hit also made the response more effective, Barney said.
Even as limited commercial traffic resumed by the end of the weekend, recovery efforts across Erie County and Buffalo continued this week.