NY drivers livid that snow snarled Buffalo highway

Emergency procedures will be reviewed after a lake-effect snowstorm and a flawed response left hundreds of motorists stranded for hours on a highway near — of all places — Buffalo.

New York State Thruway Authority Executive Director Michael Fleischer said Friday the agency should have closed nearly two dozen non-toll entrance ramps to Interstate 90 much sooner after jackknifed tractor-trailers blocked traffic just east of Buffalo, a city that prides itself on soldiering on during snowstorms that would cripple other towns.

He also said officials should have done a better job alerting drivers that delays loomed ahead and shouldn't have waited so long to get help to the stranded motorists, some stuck for 20 hours or more.

"We do need to do a better job of taking care of the human element," said Fleischer, who said the agency would take "a comprehensive look" at how it can anticipate and react to similar situations.

The Lake Erie-fed storm began Wednesday afternoon and continued through Thursday, burying parts of Buffalo and surrounding towns. Suburban Depew recorded 42 inches while Buffalo neighborhoods south of downtown got 39 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

Single storm totals that high are rare but hardly shocking on the shores of Lake Erie, which is why reports of cold and hungry motorists stuck for as long as 24 hours had some calling for heads to roll.

"Yesterday's debacle proves that the NY Thruway Authority is incompetent," said lawyer and activist James Ostrowski, who trudged along the highway on foot Thursday to get to his mother-in-law's car and bring her home after 14 hours.

He said the Thruway Authority and other public-private authorities should be abolished altogether.

Livid drivers vented their frustration on radio call-in shows, asking why Thruway officials couldn't remove sections of guardrails for U-turns or come by with progress reports instead of leaving them, literally, in the dark.

Others were furious they were allowed to get on the backed-up highway even hours after traffic had stopped.

"The (Thruway) Authority has no problem collecting our toll money," Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde wrote. "Maybe someday it will figure out how to keep its passengers from becoming its prisoners."

Thruway officials said the problem area is toll-free, so there were no plazas or employees to stop people from entering the roadway.

After being closed about 3 a.m. Thursday, I-90 reopened in both directions shortly after 6 a.m. Friday. By then, most drivers had either finally driven off or been shuttled away in buses, leaving their cars behind to be towed.

State Police Capt. Michael Nigrelli said it was especially tough to clear the large number of tractor-trailers on the busy commercial corridor, many of which lost traction and had to be towed after fast-falling snow piled up around them once they stopped.

"Unfortunately, that's not something that can be undone very quickly," he said.

Nigrelli said his review would include determining how to keep at least one lane open at all times.

Emergency crews on ATVs passed out water and protein bars during the ordeal. In some cases, relatives hiked in with food and blankets and to keep drivers company. The gridlocked portion slices through built-up suburbs and alongside the sprawling Walden Galleria Mall.

Fleischer said changes the agency would consider include allowing U-turns on entrance ways in certain circumstances.

"We can do better and we need to do better," he said.

Erie County Clerk Kathleen Hochul proposed a task force of police and traffic experts to examine evacuation procedures, calling the situation unacceptable and intolerable.

"At minimum this is an embarrassment for our community, but more critically, this is a life-threatening situation, which is absolutely intolerable," she said.

Two deaths were blamed on the weather Thursday, unrelated to the Thruway backup. Stephanie Veratti, 26, of Gasport, died Thursday night after her car slid and collided with a truck in suburban Amherst, authorities said. Lancaster police said a 78-year-old man died Thursday after collapsing while shoveling snow. His name was not released.

Dozens of schools canceled classes Thursday and again Friday.


Associated Press writer Chris Carola in Albany contributed to this report.