By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — As one of the strongest and coldest winter storms in recent memory descended upon Western New York Monday evening, officials in the city of Niagara Falls were discussing their preparedness plans and keeping close tabs on the latest weather forecasts.
At the start of Monday's 5 p.m. city council meeting — as wind howled outside a snow-swept City Hall — Mayor Paul Dyster and City Administrator Donna Owens briefed lawmakers on the city's plans for dealing with the storm which prompted blizzard warnings in other parts of the region and forced the closure of most major local roadways, including the I-90 from Williamsville to the Pennsylvania state line.
"We are in the bullseye (of the storm) as of about five minutes ago," Dyster told lawmakers just minutes into the meeting. "We'll keep an eye on that and we will respond accordingly."
As it turned out, by the time the council broke for a brief recess following its evening agenda review, the wicked weather system had shifted south, away from Niagara Falls. By meeting's end — around 7 p.m. — the blistering wind and accompanying sub-zero wind chill remained but the snow drifts had somewhat diminished.
The rest of the region was not as fortunate. At 7 p.m., Cuomo issued a state of emergency for all of Western New York, except Niagara County, and much of the area found itself under its first blizzard warning since 1993. States of emergency were declared in Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Jefferson, Lewis, Livingston, Monroe, Oneida, Orleans, Oswego, Wayne and Wyoming counties. Cuomo also activated the state Emergency Operations Center.
Starting at 8 p.m., all vehicles heading west on the Thruway were being detoured off the highway at Exit 50 and all eastbound traffic will be detoured at Exit 61.
According to the Associated Press, motorists to Pennsylvania and points west were being asked to exit the Thruway at Exit 46 near Rochester to Interstate 390 and then to Interstate 86 westbound into Pennsylvania.
The National Weather Service posted lake-effect snow warnings through Wednesday south and east of Lake Ontario, with total accumulations of more than 3 feet possible.
The entire region, including Niagara County, was under a dangerous wind chill warning, highlighted by temperatures that felt like minus 20 and lower overnight. Forecasts called for the band of intense lake effect snow to continue its assault on Buffalo and surrounding suburbs into today. The band - which was causing blizzard-like conditions and blinding white outs in the Southtowns - was expected to drift north again by this afternoon, hitting Buffalo and moving as far north as Amherst.
Back in the Falls, city officials said they were focused on managing whatever snow hit local roads, in part, by attempting to stay ahead of it. Owens said the DPW had five plow trucks and a total of eight salt trucks out in advance of the storm's arrival on Monday and that crews would continue their work overnight and into today.
"We've been salting all day and we've been in every sector of the city," Owens said.
"We're putting everything we have behind it to stay ahead of it," she added.
Dyster announced several closings during Monday's meeting, including Niagara Falls city schools which would cancelled classes for all grades today in light of the weather. Dyster said both city library branches shut down at 6 p.m. Monday and officials were not planning to reopen them until 9 a.m. Wednesday. The John Duke Senior Center and the city's LaSalle facility on Colvin Boulevard would also closed Tuesday, city officials said.
Upon questioning by the council, Dyster acknowledged that the city did not offer a specific location as an emergency shelter under such circumstances, but said he believed his administration could, under a state of emergency declaration, designate one or more municipal buildings, including possibly the Duke Center or the LaSalle facility, as safe havens for individuals in need of shelter during the storm. He indicated that the administration would announce those locations as warranted through local media outlets.
Dyster said the intensely cold weather has contributed to a several water main breaks in the city, including one that causes significant problems for residents and work crews on 88th Street. As of Monday afternoon, Dyster said repairs had been made and the street had been reopened. Dyster said there are still five or six water leaks in parts of the city, although, as of Monday evening, no one was without water service.
It's been a busy winter so far for city crews who dealt with several high-volume snow events in December, including an ice storm that contributed to a large number of downed trees and limbs. Upon questioning from the council, Dyster said the DPW was still working to pick up roadside debris from the previous storm, while dealing with severe weather like the type that arrived this week.
"We're asking people to be patient," Dyster said. "We've had a whole series of weather events to deal with since the ice storm."
Following Monday's meeting, newly elected Council Chairman Charles Walker said he'd like to meet in the weeks ahead with Dyster and DPW Director Dave Kinney to discuss the city's snow-removal procedures. He acknowledged that city lawmakers fielded several complaints from residents following the first heavy snowfall of the season and believes it is time to discuss the city's current "routine," believing it could produce improvements in the delivery of services.
Walker said that while lawmakers have in recent years authorized the purchase of new snow removal equipment for the DPW, many side roads are not getting done to a satisfactory level following snowy weather.
"I think going forward we need to have maybe some strategic planning as to the whole issue of snow removal," Walker said.