BUFFALO, N.Y. – Almost 850 New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen responded to the Christmas Eve storm that dumped 50 inches of snow on Buffalo and caused a 16-hour whiteout.
Guard Soldiers and Airmen moved critical medical personnel to hospitals, cleared snow, rescued passengers from stranded vehicles and checked on the welfare of residents at more than 3,700 households during the week-long mission.
The response started the morning of Dec. 24, with 54 personnel on duty. By the end of the day, that number had increased to 163.
Additional troops came on duty as local authorities required more vehicles — Humvees, FMTVs trucks, front-end loaders and dump trucks. By Dec. 29, the number of troops on duty peaked at 701.
The mission ended Dec. 31, although Soldiers remain on duty to conduct maintenance on the 172 vehicles used across Erie County roads.
More than four feet of snow fell on Buffalo during the two-day storm, shutting down the city and stranding motorists.
“This is an epic, statewide hazard,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul warned Dec. 23 as the region prepared for the storm.
By the time it was over, 39 people had died. Some went outside, got lost and froze to death. Others were stranded in vehicles, and others died because emergency personnel could not get to them in time.
New York National Guard personnel established a headquarters at Buffalo’s Connecticut Street Armory, but the weather on Dec. 24 made it impossible for troops reporting for duty to get there.
An 18-person response team from the 107th Attack Wing at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, led by 1st Lt. Richard Burns, could not get into Buffalo in F-350 trucks and had to turn back.
When the storm wound down, the Airmen rescued stranded motorists and drove a pregnant woman to John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital just before she gave birth.
Members of the 107th team also transported a heart patient to the hospital.
“We had one gentleman who lived with an artificial heart that was battery-powered,” Sgt. Kevin Au told WGRZ television.
“He was in need of getting a recharge. He had a spare battery that was in his home address, and we were also trying to get him to a hospital so they could plug him in. As I understand it, his battery had less than a half-hour of timeline before we were able to get him someplace safe,” Au said.
Maj. Gen. Ray Shields, the adjutant general of New York, visited the 107th Attack Wing Dec. 29 to recognize the Airmen in that initial response team.
“I can’t thank you all enough for coming in and helping our fellow citizens over a holiday weekend,” Shields told them.
As the storm began to wind down, critics accused Hochul of erring in not activating National Guard Soldiers and Airmen sooner.
Those critics don’t comprehend how bad the storm was, said Lt. Col. Justin Coats, the deputy commander of the 153rd Troop Command, and the initial joint task force commander.
The weather conditions Dec. 24 made it impossible to conduct any rescue missions that day, he said.
They would have been “pinned” in the armories, he said.
As the weather cleared on Dec. 26, Soldiers from the 827th Engineer Company cleared snow from the parking lot at the Erie County Fire Training Academy in Cheektowaga to prepare a staging area for local, county and state first responders.
Soldiers and Airmen in Humvees and F-350 trucks began moving critical medical personnel to hospitals and psychiatric centers and patrolling for stranded motorists.
Army National Guard Pfc. Matthew Waldman, a member of the 105th Military Police Company, was on his way to sign in on duty when he diverted to help get a pregnant woman to the hospital.
The 107th Attack Wing’s Fatality Search and Recovery Team helped recover 22 people who died in the storm.
From Dec. 27-29, Soldiers and Airmen visited 3,755 households to find out if people had food, water and vital medications. They delivered 3,336 meals ready to eat and 150 cases of water.
That mission made the Soldiers realize how bad the storm was, Spc. Daniel Weimer told Spectrum News.
“When you see elderly people not being able to get out of their home, you just feel horrible, especially when they don’t have power for three to four days, they can’t keep warm,” Weimer said. “You know how people were buried in. Specific homes, you could not even get to the door. Burned down homes, sadly, we saw several of those.”
Soldiers also passed out toys donated to the New York National Guard’s Family Programs to families they visited.
Soldiers of the 105th Military Police Company set up traffic control points to keep people from driving down roads where crews were working to remove snow.
The 204th Engineer Battalion deployed additional dump trucks to help remove snow.