I-Team: Is WNY ready for a Harvey-like disaster?

'Snowvember' spurred changes in response
Posted at 5:34 PM, Aug 30, 2017

The words of Jackie Abate are a painful reminder of the toll severe weather can take on Western New York.

“I lost the love of my life,” Abate said in 2014. “And I'm so sorry for his parents to have to go through this. I'm so sorry."

Abate’s husband, Donald, died three years ago in the November storm. He was found trapped in his car on Broadway in Alden -- a tragedy that his parents said could have been prevented.

“It could have all been avoided if somebody just...took a little bit of initiative or if they hadn't been turned away by the police,” his mother said.

Added Abate’s father: “Those AAA vehicles are emergency vehicles and they are the only ones allowed on the road. Why weren't they let through?”

It wasn't the only time authorities were caught flat-footed by severe weather.

In 2010, another major storm left hundreds of Western New Yorkers stranded on the Thruway.

That led the Thruway Authority to install gates at on-ramps. After “Snowvember” in 2014, the state installed more gates. There are now a total of 32 gates in WNY, officials said, and more may be coming this year to I-990.

But three years later, there's still confusion about exactly who is responsible for what when it comes to emergency response.

The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team reached out to the Thruway Authority and the state Department of Transportation to ask if they've made any changes to improve communication and storm response.

Thruway Authority officials said they have purchased new plows, equipped them with GPS technology and widened three U-turns for tractor trailers that need to turn around.

An official with the State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services said the agency has developed a new storm management tool for use by local governments.

“It's more of locals are taking care of everything,” said John Gullo, disaster management coordinator for West Seneca. “You just don't call the state or the federal government to help you out...it's all home-grown.”

Gullo pushed the town to set up an emergency headquarters in the old Ebenezer schoolhouse on Mill Road -- which came in handy when the town had massive flooding last month.

“All the other different agencies will report to this and say, 'hey, we need a fire unit, a boat, or whatever else we don't have' in a disaster situation...so we can provide those,” Gullo said.

He understands the chaos that develops in a dire emergency like Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

“You know you look at that situation, you feel bad for them all,” Gullo said. “I look at it like something that would happen for us, like the November storm we had...there's a lot going on.”

After that storm, West Seneca moved to upgrade its shelters and drainage systems.

Dan Neaverth Jr., who runs emergency operations for Erie County, said there are lessons that can be learned after each storm.

"You don't want to repeat some of the mistakes that were made,” he said. “You're constantly trying to find ways to improve."