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Generosity of time, goods and hospitality appreciated, municipal costs to be submitted for federal aid

By Joanne Beck


As city and county officials tallied the weekend’s figures — numbers of staff on overtime duty, and total costs for manpower, equipment and related expenses — their gratitude for community support will extend to federal aid as well now that FEMA has announced financial assistance for New York State, and in particular, Genesee County.

Declaration should mean federal help
“There's a process that FEMA takes based on filing the emergency declaration that allows us to expend funds to deal with life safety, whether it's infrastructure, or housing and rescuing people, and then they'll evaluate damages, and overall cost affiliated with the storm,” County Emergency Management Services Director Tim Yeager said Tuesday. “And then they'll look at a declaration that will allow for reimbursement of expenses. So it takes about two weeks. Because then the data and the costs are accumulated and then sent to the state, they gather that and then send it to FEMA, and then they make a decision based on matrixes that they have on thresholds of cost. They're going to pay, typically, the federal reimbursement rate of 75 percent of the cost.”

That remaining 25 percent is sometimes paid by the state, he said, or it would go to the local municipality.

Both city and county management are still in the accounting phase of determining final numbers and associated costs of Winter Storm Elliott.

“At this time, there is not a complete accounting of the OT that was expended due to the storm, but we will be finalizing the reporting and submitting it to the County as part of their storm disaster relief accounting and potential FEMA reimbursement," City Manager Rachael Tabelski said Tuesday.

What goes into the accounting? 
City of Batavia personnel, including the Public Works, Water Plant, Wastewater Plant, Police and Fire departments, “stepped up during the storm to ensure that the city remained passable,” Tabelski said. All departments continued to operate and assist the county staff with storm response throughout the Christmas weekend, she said.

Some staff members spent the night at the Water and Wastewater Plant to ensure continuity of operations. The Police Emergency Response Team was called in Friday and Saturday to help with search and rescue with the city’s MRAP, she said. An acronym bandied about lately -- an MRAP is a military light tactical (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle that’s as heavy-duty and dependable as it sounds.    

The city’s Fire Station became a makeshift central distribution point for food, water, and supplies for those stranded or displaced by the storm, and firefighters and city staff worked to get supplies out to the 11 warming shelters throughout the county, including one at Grace Baptist Church in Batavia. 

"The City of Batavia workforce is a dedicated group of people who show up and get the job done, day in and day out,” Tabelski said. “And I am very proud to get to work with such a great group of individuals.”

Substantial overtime
County Manager Matt Landers, likewise, did not have specific numbers, adding that “it is hard to quantify how many staff actually participated” and thought he could pull together something more definite in the next day or two. “We are still calculating the OT,” he said Monday night, but he knows that it was “certainly substantial.”

He planned to submit a claim once the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared the storm a federal emergency, which it did on Tuesday.

“I would essentially say that everyone in the Sheriff's road patrol, every dispatcher, everyone in the Sheriff's Administration, all of Emergency Management, Highway Administration, all county plow operators” were involved, he said. “The community response to this storm was nothing short of amazing. So many people stepped up to help in so many different ways.  The heroic efforts by our law enforcement, volunteer and professional firefighters, first responders, dispatchers and snow plow operators undoubtedly saved lives.

“In addition to these brave individuals saving lives, it was wonderful to see the rest of the community step up by sheltering stranded individuals, whether it was at a warming center or people that opened their personal homes up to stranded motorists,” he said. “The outpouring of food and supplies from the community to those in need was wonderful to witness!”

The weekend — which began early on Friday and built into a full-blown, three-day disaster management exercise — had affected not only hundreds of motorists diverted off the Thruway, but also those in command of alleviating the storm’s effects.

A scary Disney ride
“The experience for me was like a roller coaster, with fears of having stranded motorists in our county succumb to the elements to the amazing news that our first responders had cleared all of the vehicles with no fatalities.  I was in constant communication with our Sheriff, Highway Superintendent and Emergency Management Coordinator, keeping up to date on how the storm was tracking and how the road conditions were deteriorating,” Landers said. “Their advice, plus the input of county departments that care for our vulnerable populations, along with discussions with the city manager and chair of our Legislature, made my decision to close county offices for Friday the clear choice.”

Close communication with those people also helped him to make another decision, to implement a countywide State of Emergency and travel ban, he said. Along with the hard work came amazing stories, he said, of everyday people stepping up with heroic actions to help save lives. 

“I hope many of these stories get out in the press in the following days so the rest of the county can learn about the heroes walking among them,” he said.

Tabelski had a “very good idea” of how to organize the food and get it delivered to the shelters and emergency responders, while Landers and his wife Melissa reached out to friends and colleagues in Batavia to appeal for donations. Landers and his daughter Katie then drove around picking up the many homemade dishes and snack and beverage items.

“I still have to get these dishes back to the families that donated, which will hopefully happen in the next couple of days, but I am sure some won't make it back.  It was nice to see over 20 people that we had messaged step up and donate food items,” he said. “I want to give a huge shout-out to John Spryopoulos from Settlers Restaurant, who donated seven full pans of food and eight half pans of food.  He opened up his kitchen with a couple of helpers Saturday morning and had the food ready by early afternoon.”

Recovery here, ongoing rescues a county over
Yaeger took a few minutes to look back and appreciate all of the efforts that went into weekend rescues, though his work was not quite done. The last of the stranded motorists emptied out of warming shelters by 9 p.m. Monday, he said, and they were back on their way home — whether directly by a vehicle on side roads due to a still closed Thruway, or after checking into a local hotel to get more rest before their trip.

He, on the other hand, was still in full rescue mode, helping to coordinate vehicles — MRAPs borrowed from Orleans and Livingston counties and utility task vehicles (UTVs) — for arrival in Erie County. Many of those vehicles were needed to transport patients ready for check-out at hospitals so that additional patients could be treated, Yaeger said.

As one of the many folks in this area to know about the infamous blizzard of 45 years ago, this latest one tops everything so far, he said.

"I think the onset was far faster than I think anyone expected it to be. And I think it was just typically the lake effect snow does not set up over Genesee County for that extended period of time. Basically, the heaviest lake effect was in that northwest quadrant, west side of the county. Pretty much the whole west side of the county that was the kind of that heavy, heavy, heavy snow and wind, and that's what caused all those problems,” he said. “I've never experienced that type of snow event and wind event. I mean, obviously I was a child when Blizzard of ’77 occurred. And that was a different dynamic because of the snow buildup on Lake Erie. We didn't have that to deal with. We just have heavy, heavy lake effect and the strong winds causing the low visibility, and then the people just can't clean the roads fast enough.”

He was a central point of operations and also walked the walk, joining a team on the roads Saturday night. Danger aside, “there wasn’t a lot of convincing needed,” he said about the responders eager to help out. They all agreed with similar sentiment that “we should not be out there," he said, and yet they all went.

“The internal fortitude of the first responders, both law enforcement, fire and EMS, not to give up and, they just keep pushing and pushing, and we obviously brought in more resources, but that took time to get those resources here,” Yaeger said. “But when you're in the storm, you're risking, obviously, their lives … risking the lives of the first responders out there. So, there'll be conversations, what do we do better? I know, from the state level, down to the local level, how can we do a better job of keeping cars off the road? They had plenty of warning, I can assure you that everyone knew it was coming.”

Lessons and thankfulness in hindsight
Landers also said that there will be a countywide discussion about learning from hindsight and preparing as much as possible for any future Elliotts that may blow into town. Tucked into the questions and concerns has been an element of gratitude for what Yaeger described as a “heroic effort that I witnessed” during at least a continuous 48 hours of responding to a nature-inspired emergency.

“All the way from the dispatchers to tow truck operators, and snow removal, highway workers and the volunteer fire and law enforcement of both Sheriff's Office, State Police, city PD, just never stopping until everyone they knew everyone was safe,” Yaeger said. “And it was absolutely, when you talk about heroes, those guys are heroes, and girls. Absolutely heroic effort, and then the sheltering of the public and the municipal leaders and businesses locally, from the churches, to schools to private restaurants, private residences.

“They just opened their doors and let complete strangers in,” he said. “It’s just absolutely amazing.”

Tabelski provided an updated donor list that was part of the “hundreds of volunteers in the city and across the county (that) stepped up to assist during this storm.” To view, see HERE


Top Photo: If you cannot see this scene very clearly, that's exactly what it was like for motorists on Friday and Saturday in the western part of Genesee County. Photo by Steve Grice. Above, a safer view of the cleared road, properties and an oncoming car Tuesday after massive cleanup efforts took place during the weekend. Photo by Howard Owens.

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