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County leaders counting blessings in midst of 'wicked storm'

By Howard B. Owens

So far, it might be classified as a Christmas miracle, said County Manager Matt Landers.

With dozens of people trapped in vehicles for hours and cars all around Oakfield and Alabama buried in up to five feet of snow, emergency crews have yet to uncover any fatalities.

County Highway Superintendent Tim Hens said with hours of the storm yet to weather, and emergency responders working around the clock, he's still nervous about people's safety, but he, too, is hoping for a Christmas miracle.

Hens spent all night with County Highway workers running heavy loaders with big plows attached ahead of convoys of search and rescue crews, and he said the situation is the worst he's seen in his life.

"It is frustrating because we knew people really needed to help, and he just couldn't get to him," Hens said. "It seemed like no matter which way we went, whatever road we went down or whatever piece of equipment we took, it just was zero visibility. I mean, you could literally not see past the hood of your own car. Even though we had loaders with huge blades on them, and the Sheriff's were using MRAPs, the military vehicles that they've acquired, and we had tracked vehicles and groomers that are used for snowmobile trails and things like that, you just couldn't see where you're going. It was just extremely frustrating and scary."

Hens said in those conditions -- strong winds, zero visibility, 20 degrees below zero with windchill, a person outside without protective gear couldn't last long.

"You just can't see where you're going," Hens said. "It's disorienting. It's cold. The wind is ripping right through everything you've got on. Like I said, every little hair on your body accumulates ice and snow. If you didn't have goggles on, you're out of luck. The one time I jumped out (of my truck) to put a strap on a truck to pull somebody out, I forgot to put my goggles on, my eyelashes froze together. That was interesting."

While many people have been rescued, there's no way of knowing how many people haven't been rescued, hence the hope for a miracle. 

"I'm still relatively nervous about it because, I mean, there's still a lot of cars that have not been found yet," Hens said. "So there are still people in cars that have been there for a long time. There is the possibility that people got out of their cars and went looking for their own help, to a neighboring house or something like that and like I said, it is so disorienting. If you got out of your car last night, you wouldn't have known that there could have been a house 20 feet from you, and you wouldn't have seen it."

A large number of cars being located after getting stuck on Route 77, Route 63, Ledge Road, Judge Road, etc., have Canadian or out-of-state license plates. That's a factor of the state closing the Thruway and motorists relying on Google or Apple maps.  They got no warning that there was a travel ban in place or that a blizzard was passing over the very routes Google and Apple were suggesting.

"We probably would have had to have dealt with 30 or 40 cars, maybe, of our own people," Landers said. "But now we're having a couple of hundred cars. This is the GPS that was sending everybody right through Route 63, Route 77, right through the heart of the worst of the storm."

Landers said he isn't pointing a finger at the state.  He understands the need to close the Thruway, but there needs to be a better plan, and the state needs to lean on GPS mappers so that the maps do a better job of warning drivers of critically dangerous conditions.

"The solution can't simply be close the Thruway, and now it's a free for all into the small communities like Genesee County, Alabama and Oakfield," Landers said. "So it's something that I have reached out with the state about this morning. And again, it's not to be pointing the finger. It's just a matter that we have to learn from this because this situation was exasperated multiple times over by the fact that we get people from Los Angeles, people from Ohio, people from all over the place going on our back roads."

Hens said he hopes the governor's office will lean on Google to fix its technology.

"A lot of Canadians we talked to last night said, 'I was following my Google Map. I was following my Google Map, and I saw the red lines on the Google Map for traffic, and we just thought it was a traffic jam,'" Hens said. "They didn't know it was a lake effect snow band. And most people have never been in a lake effect snow band, so they didn't even know what it's like."

There are still hundreds of personnel -- volunteers and paid staff -- out on search and rescue missions.

Landers praised their dedication, hard work, and willingness to put their own safety at risk to help others.

He also marveled at all the residents and business owners who have been open to provide food and shelter to stranded travelers.  He said the county's human resources director, Anita Cleveland, took in a family of five overnight after the deputy who rescued them had become stuck in the snow.

Currently, there are 11 warming shelters open, and they are caring for 582 people.

"It's all hands on deck," Landers said.

And it's not over.

While the large lake effect snow band that hovered over Alabama and Oakfield most of the night has moved north, giving rescues some respite to get their work done, it's expected to drive south again, not only passing over those communities again but also into Batavia.

"The band is forecast to slowly move south across the county, I think, beginning about two or three o'clock this afternoon and will be kind of centered around the county, more of a traditional Airport, Batavia, kind of alignment for most of the afternoon and early evening from what the National Weather Service says," Hens said. "With snowfall rates of one to two inches an hour, so I would say from my experience, Darien, Pembroke, Alexander, and Batavia will take the brunt of it from a severity standpoint, and then it'll taper off. It looks like conditions will deteriorate for most of the center part of the county later this afternoon."

With the storm expected to last well into the night and perhaps into Sunday morning, Hens isn't just nervous about the safety of people out on the roads, he's nervous about remaining operations. People are tired and equipment is being heavily used.

"I'm just nervous that we're gonna have equipment breaking," Hens said. "You know, we've been using it pretty heavy now for 24 hours straight in some pretty wicked conditions. ... I'm nervous that someone's gonna get hurt or equipment is gonna get broken, and then we're going to have the band come back through, and we're going to be caught sideways a little bit, but fingers crossed, like Matt said, we need a little bit of a Christmas miracle."

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