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Digging Out From The Snow Is Slow-Going In Buffalo

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The area around Buffalo in Western New York State got something it didn't need today, more snow. That's on top of more than five feet that already piled up this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNOW PLOW)

BLOCK: Hundreds of vehicles are coming in from across the state to clear roads and deal with an emergency that has already claimed at least 10 lives. The hardest hit area was around the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga. And that's where we reached Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. He told me he's lived in the area most of his life but has never seen this much snow, this fast, this early in the year.

MARK POLONCARZ: It is a lake effect snow band, which we're used to here. We normally get lake effect snow bands, but they generally hit the hardest in the ski country, which is about 30 miles south of the city of Buffalo. This lake effect snow band never left. It's been there for three days. It moved slightly up to the north and gave us a respite yesterday. But it's back in the same area, and its dumping snow at a rate, right now, of three inches an hour.

BLOCK: You know, it's interesting you talked about the lake effect because there are places not very far from where you are right now that have not seen very much snow at all. Just a couple of miles away, you're looking at five or six feet.

POLONCARZ: That is correct. I live in North Buffalo, and I have about four inches of snow on my ground. We were in downtown Buffalo at our headquarters for the first day-and-a-half of the storm. And the snow band was a quarter mile just south of downtown. If you were in downtown, it wasn't snowing at all. If you were in the snow band, you could easily have had four feet of snow. It was a sight to see, watching this band come straight in over the lake. You could almost see the water and moisture being picked up off of the lake. Our biggest worry now is we're expecting a quick warm-up over the weekend. And we are worried about a very rapid melting of the snow. We've been told by the National Weather Service, based on the amount of snow on the ground in some of these areas, it's comparable to receiving about seven inches of rain.

BLOCK: So you're going to be worried about flooding.

POLONCARZ: We are very worried about flooding. We've got all of our supplies here in the county and towns, out on the roads. New York State has been doing a tremendous job. They've brought in resources from across the state. The region that's been impacted has approximately 450,000 people that live in it. We're seeing collapses of roofs. We've had to pull people out of a nursing home because of structural deficiencies with the roof of the nursing home. It was not collapsing, but there are cracks on the walls, and the high-beams are twisting. So we're dealing with all sorts of things.

BLOCK: Have the plows been able to keep up with the snow?

POLONCARZ: We were able to keep up with the snow at first until vehicles started blocking the roads. And then our plows could not get through. What we've been doing since then, as we've had the opportunity to do so, is we literally are going car to car, pushing cars to the side or towing them away so that we can get our plows down the roads. And it's affected every road in the community. And we're just finally getting to a point right now where we can get emergency personnel and vehicles across the entire community. But we're still having a tremendous difficulty in dealing with these issues, especially emergency response issues where we can't get an ambulance down the street because there is five feet of snow on it.

BLOCK: I was wondering about that. I mean, have ambulances had a hard time getting folks to hospitals?

POLONCARZ: Ambulances have had hard times. We've been relying on our sheriffs and local police and volunteer fire. Sometimes, the only way to get around is by going door to door, walking. We use snowmobiles. We use ATVs, anything possible because there are situations where we cannot get a vehicle down - even near the road.

BLOCK: Mr. Poloncarz, what's your biggest need right now?

POLONCARZ: Our biggest need has always been, right from the beginning, was having not just plow drivers, but we need heavy equipment like pay-loaders, back-end loaders - because the snow has gotten so deep and so thick that the only way to get rid of it now is not necessarily to plow it, but it's to pick it up and put it into trucks. We're also having significant problems with some of the members of our community who, instead of staying at home and following the driving bans as we state, are getting out on the roads. And then, they're getting stuck themselves. So what we've seen in the last 24 hours, after the initial storm, is we've cleared some roads. Actually, we've cleared many roads. But then, people will try to get out and drive, and then themselves will get stuck in the next wave of snow. And now we've got to go back out there and tow these people away so that we can re-plow the roads. It's just what I've been asking for from the public, which is exercise common sense. And if you go outside when it's snowing at three inches an hour, the temperature is approximately 20 degrees with a 40 mile-an-hour wind. So the wind chill's at zero. If you get stuck, you are in a life-threatening situation - people who earlier this week were alive and unfortunately, the storm that we've called Winter Storm Knife has taken their life. And it's sad.

BLOCK: Winter Storm Knife?

POLONCARZ: That's the official name. We name our storms here for various reasons. We called it Knife. This storm was shaped like a knife that cut right through the heart of Eerie County.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Poloncarz, thanks for taking time to talk to us. I appreciate it.

POLONCARZ: I appreciate everyone's concern. And I want to thank everyone from across the country who's been contacting us saying that they're supporting us and doing everything possible, including sending volunteers in, to help us with this cleanup.

BLOCK: That's Mark Poloncarz, the executive of Erie County, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.