The weather forecast for snow and flooding remains poor. Here’s how to plan.
Blizzards are the hurricanes of the north. Blizzards and hurricanes are unstoppable forces that threaten everyone in their path. To expect Buffalo to weather a blizzard better because it snows a lot is to believe that Seattle can ignore any hurricane just because it rains a lot. Blizzards combine snow with deadly cold, sustained winds, and blinding whiteout conditions, turning the familiar into a pristine alien landscape that can kill anyone unlucky enough to get caught in it. One of the keys to preventing such deaths is early decision-making, so recent events in Buffalo create an important moment to consider how best to proceed in the future.
While we should hold leaders accountable, we shouldn’t expect our leaders to personally risk embarrassment when making the safest choices on our behalf.
Life-threatening emergency conditions are notorious for their tipping points, when things suddenly get worse due to a cascade of adverse events. Snow is a prime example. If the snowplows lose their fight against the storm, we didn’t just lose the emergency services during that storm, we’ve now lost them to days after the storm: When the storm stops, it takes days of incessant, heavy and dangerous work to loosen the snow-covered streets.
Meanwhile, new chains of bad events threaten to make matters even worse. For example, the road clearing fleet regularly consumes fuel, but nearby gas stations cannot supply that fuel when they cannot receive it on the snowy roads the equipment is trying to clear. Time is also running out for supermarkets, which rely on daily deliveries to keep shelves full. The possibility of food shortages, especially in densely populated areas, is a real danger until a minimum number of roads are dug and safe for delivery trucks.
Any leader making decisions in an emergency wants to ward off this growing evil as much as possible. Buffalo, sadly, lost some of that fight in the December 2022 blizzard, losing dozens of its citizens to the storm and enduring blocked streets for days afterward. At this time, immediately after the storm, it is important to take time to grieve. Going forward, it is important to learn as much as possible from the loss.
To do this, we must recognize a very particular type of decision that leaders often face in an emergency, a high-stakes choice that must be made early to prevent the first domino from falling and triggering a series of other problems. In Buffalo, that early decision is when to close the roads before the blizzard arrives. (Mandatory evacuations are another example for other types of emergencies.)
When a snow emergency is approaching, why do we close the roads? To keep them open. When faced with epic snowfalls, most urban snowplows can clear snow faster and stay in the fight longer if they don’t get stuck behind smaller vehicles struggling in the same conditions. Keeping roads open means emergency services can respond throughout the storm, including utility crews to tackle power outages, and everyone is back on the road immediately after. Keeping smaller vehicles off the roads also allows drivers to stay safe inside, away from blinding blizzard conditions.
The Buffalo experience, unfortunately, shows the alternative scenario. So far, 40 people across the region are known to have been lost in this blizzard. Four were found in their cars stuck and 17 were found in the open, presumably leaving a vehicle stuck behind them or struggling on foot because they couldn’t free their vehicle to drive where they really thought they needed to be . At least three people died because an ambulance could not reach them, and 11 others died in their homes due to a power outage and utility crews being unable to respond.
It is easy to say now that the roads should have been closed sooner. But this decision was not so simple because of the enormous costs that such a closure entails, especially if the emergency does not materialize as expected. Remember that the emergency itself is an uncontrolled condition: like any weather system, the blizzard could have moved away from Buffalo and pushed through forests and farmland to the south.
Anyone who announced a ban on driving into town just to see the storm pass would be responsible for shutting down the area’s economy during some of the busiest shopping days of the year and separating loved ones trying to gather for the holidays. Human nature alone suggests that your decision maker might hesitate, even before you recognize that this person is usually an elected official whose job largely depends on their popularity.
What is the solution? We must depersonalize such decisions if we want better results in the future. While we should hold leaders accountable, we shouldn’t expect our leaders to personally risk embarrassment when making the safest choices on our behalf. As a result, we depersonalize these decisions by converting them into pre-programmed rules of thumb from which we do not deviate once established.
For example, we all agree that driving bans come into effect at a certain time before the expected arrival of a snowstorm of a certain severity probability, based on data from an agreed source such as the National Weather Service. Emergency managers, analysts and policy makers take enough time in non-emergency conditions to identify, debate and finalize the exact time and precise probabilities, but then the rule is set and everyone knows it. If any given storm heads south – in hindsight, stopping driving in the city “for no reason” – it’s not the decision maker’s fault, it’s just the rule.
And by “we”, I mean each of us. This first decision protection system that blocks a domino-shaped cascade of damage only works if we all take a break from our normal lives and recognize this particular characteristic of emergencies. In other words, we must support the rule that keeps the first domino and follow it, for ourselves and our communities.