The extra effort to save lives went well beyond just a few individuals.
Photos by Howard Owens. Top photo: Nate Fix and Anthony Johnston of Genesee SnoPackers and Deputy Kevin McCarthy were recognized for their initiative to use the Snopackers' grooming machine and a snowmobile to make it possible for a convoy of rescuers to make it to stranded motorists, resulting in multiple lives saved. Some of those rescued clearly would have perished in the following 30 to 60 minutes if the team of rescuers hadn't reached them when they did, Sheriff Wiliam Sheron noted.
2022 BLIZZARD ELLIOTT AWARDS:
The following are being recognized for their heroic actions during historic Blizzard Elliott that occurred December 23 – December 25, 2022. Blizzard Elliott inflicted sub-zero wind chill temperatures and blinding lake-effect snow that left numerous highways and roads impassable. Multiple motorists were stranded in their vehicles for several hours and were not easily accessible by emergency first responders. Without hesitation for their own safety, these employees worked considerable additional hours to rescue motorists. Their brave actions that holiday weekend, undoubtedly, saved many lives.
They are to be commended for their actions which have brought great credit upon themselves and the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office.
Undersheriff Bradley D. Mazur
Deputy Sheriff Rachel M. Diehl
Deputy Sheriff Jonathan M. Dimmig
Chief Deputy-Criminal Investigations Joseph M. Graff
Deputy Sheriff Eric J. Meyer
Deputy Sheriff Kyle J. Tower
Chief Deputy-Road Patrol
Brian M. Frieday
Deputy Sheriff Ryan W. Young
Deputy Sheriff Zachary P. Hoy
Sergeant Jason E. Saile
Deputy Sheriff Robert C. Henning
Deputy Sheriff Morgan C. Ewert
Sergeant Andrew B. Hale
Deputy Sheriff Jeremy M. McClellan
Deputy Sheriff Ryan J. Mullen
Sergeant Michael J. Lute
Deputy Sheriff Travis M. DeMuth
Deputy Sheriff Alexander R. Hadsall
Sergeant Mathew J. Clor
Deputy Sheriff James D. Stack
Deputy Sheriff Carlos O. Ortiz Speed
Sergeant Kyle D. Krzemien
Deputy Sheriff Andrew Z. Mullen
Deputy Sheriff Ayrton J. Blankenberg
Investigator Erik B. Andre
Deputy Sheriff Joshua A. Brabon
Deputy Sheriff Jacob A. Kipler
Deputy Sheriff Patrick J. Reeves
Deputy Sheriff David D. Moore
Deputy Sheriff Mason S. Schultz
Deputy Sheriff Richard S. Schildwaster
Deputy Sheriff Jordan M. Alejandro
Deputy Sheriff Kevin R. McCarthy assisted rescue efforts by operating his personal snowmobile to reach stranded motorists in their vehicles.
Blizzard Elliott generated over 3,200 total phone calls and 953 distinct calls for service, resulting in the busiest day in the history of the Genesee County Emergency Services Dispatch Center. The following communications personnel played a vital role in addressing the tremendous demands placed upon the 9-1-1 Center during this extraordinary event and are to be commended for their actions which have brought great credit to themselves and the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office.
Director of Emergency Comm. Francis A. Riccobono
Emergency Services Dispatcher Andrew K. Merkel
Public Safety Systems Manager Justin T. Allen
Emergency Services Dispatcher Samantha L. Conibear
Sr. Emergency Services Dispatcher Robert H. Tripp
Emergency Services Dispatcher Emily K. Young
Sr. Emergency Services Dispatcher Jason W. Holman
Emergency Services Dispatcher Shelby M. Turner
Sr. Emergency Services Dispatcher Michael T. Sheflin
Emergency Services Dispatcher Matthew F. Grimes
Emergency Services Dispatcher Stephen R. Smelski
Emergency Services Dispatcher Shaylene S. Kilner
Emergency Services Dispatcher Peggy D. Richardson
PT Emergency Services Dispatcher Cady E. Glor
Emergency Services Dispatcher Kelly E. Smith
PT Emergency Services Dispatcher Marie A. Vaughn
Emergency Services Dispatcher Nathan L. Fix, while off duty and in his capacity as Vice-President of Genesee Sno Packers, played a crucial role in securing the use of its Tucker snow grooming machine that led a convoy of first responders to reach stranded motorists who had been in their vehicles for multiple hours.
CERTIFICATES OF APPRECIATION:
Anita Cleveland for welcoming one of our deputies who was stranded on the road in front of her house, along with two motorists that he previously rescued from their stranded vehicle, into her home where she provided comfort, food and shelter.
Sheriff’s Office Chaplain Jeffrey R. Bartz, his wife, Jami, and Grace Baptist Church. Multiple motorists were stranded for several hours in their vehicles and once rescued were in need of a place to shelter until the blizzard passed and roads opened. Chaplain Bartz, without hesitation, assisted with the opening of Grace Baptist Church as a warming shelter, and he and his wife spent the holiday weekend providing comfort, food, and shelter to strangers in need.
Genesee Sno Packers provided its Tucker snow grooming machine to lead a convoy of first responders to reach multiple stranded motorists.
Anthony Johnston is a member of the Genesee Sno Packers, and he volunteered his time to drive its Tucker snow grooming machine, jeopardizing his own safety to assist patrols.
From plowing roads and driveways, digging out stranded motorists, transporting people to safer locations, getting food and medical care to those in need and extending a warm and friendly hand of hope to people who had quite literally felt their lives were in danger, Genesee County officials and emergency responders took some moments this week to celebrate bravery, extraordinary efforts and well-deserved kudos for their ongoing work during Blizzard Elliott in late December.
County legislators read proclamations honoring each district within the county, as emergency responders gathered in camaraderie to share highlights of that three-day ordeal. The breadth and scope of the rescues, though attempted through stories, news reports and online posts, have still probably missed some of the myriad elements involved during those blindingly snow-blanketed days.
Once Elliott blew through the northwest corner of the county, “raging its fury on the Town of Alabama and surrounding areas, causing life-threatening circumstances to many travelers and farm animals,” the proclamation begins, “and Blizzard Elliott debilitated this district in a very short time, causing roadways to be unpassable. With the quick action of so many, it is easy to say we have heroes amongst us.”
Genesee County assisted more than 700 travelers, with dispatch taking 1,021 service calls and first responders rescuing 125 people. Approximately 240 cars and 60 tractor-trailers were stuck in drifts as high as 10-feet, county officials said, and 12 warming shelters were opened in surrounding areas. Hundreds of vehicles were pulled out of ditches by tow trucks, farmers, firefighters and good Samaritans.
“The Genesee County Legislature recognizes and admires our dedicated law enforcement, firefighters, emergency management, highway, elected leaders, food banks, schools, churches, tow truck operators, snowmobile clubs, local businesses and citizens who all rose to the occasion when others needed help,” the proclamation states. “Now, therefore, be it resolved the Genesee County Legislature would like to thank you ALL for the available forces of manpower, equipment and community helping hands that came together. The goal of preserving life was focused on and achieved. Volunteers who left their families to search for and save visitors are our most valued community members.
“Thank you to the warming shelters for providing safety, food and care to stranded visitors, thus demonstrating the high level of dedication we have for humankind in Genesee County. We extend our gratitude and respect for your community response to Elliott,” it states.
Likewise, Sheriff William Sheron, Emergency Management Services Coordinator Tim Yaeger and County Highway Superintendent Tim Hens shared about the high level of cooperation and collaboration amongst the county’s emergency service and highway providers, and how that made such a difference in the results during that winter storm. There were no fatalities.
“Thank you for the service we have here in Genesee County,” Sheron said. “Undoubtedly, you have saved lives. We wouldn’t be able to survive without you guys. What a team effort. I can’t thank you enough, from the bottom of our hearts.”
Hens also thanked everyone and said he was proud to represent the town and village highway superintendents and city public works. Everyone “put aside barriers” and got the job done to ensure that roads were cleared when possible.
“I want to recognize their efforts. They all came to the call,” he said. “It’s truly remarkable how our community comes together.”
A nod of thanks and appreciation was also given to County Manager Matt Landers, who worked throughout that Christmas weekend helping to rally friends for food donations and, with his daughter as sidekick helper, drove around to pick up items and get them to the staging area of the city fire station.
Photos by Howard Owens Top Photo of Emergency Management Services Coordinator Tim Yaeger at the podium as Sheriff William Sheron looks on during the proclamation ceremony.
County Legislators John Deleo and Marianne Clattenburg watch a video about Winter Storm Elliott that was produced by the Town of Alabama Highway Department.
LegislatorMarianne Clattenburg with (not in order) Gary Patnode, Alabama Fire Chief, David Boyle, Village of Oakfield, Nate Fix and Anthony Johnston of SnoPackers, Sean Downing, Oakfield Fire Chief, and Oakfield Assistant Fire Chief Chad Williams;
LegislatorChristian Yunker with (not in order) Vito Muoio, South Byron Fire, Jeremy Rassel, South Byron Fire, Garett Dean, Bergen Fire, Robert Mruczek, Byron Fire Chief, Nick Esten, Elba Fire Chief, and Gretchen Rosales, superintendent of Elba School District.
LegislatorGordon Dibble with LuAnne Mileham, Ed Mileham, Indian Falls/Pembroke Assistant Fire Chief, Greg Lang, Corfu Fire Chief, and Jeff Luker, Darien Fire Chief.
Legislator Brooks Hawley with (not in order) Christopher Scopano, LeRoy Ambulance, Tim Eckdahl, Stafford Fire Chief, Craig Johnson, LeRoy Fire Chief, and Paul Dibble, Town of Batavia Fire Chief.
Legislator Gregg Torrey with Jeff Fluker, Bethany Fire Chief, left, Carl Hyde Jr., Bethany Town Supervisor, right.
Legislator John Deleo, Euguene Jankowski Jr., City Council President, Jeffrey Bartz, Grace Baptist Church, Bob Fix, City of Batavia Fire, and Christopher Camp, Batavia City Assistant Police Chief.
Legislator Gary Maha, with (not in order) Pam McCarthy, Mercy EMS, Sheriff William Sheron, Undersheriff Bradley Mazur, Sgt. Kyle Krzemien, Deputy Jonathan Dimming, Deputy Jacob Kipler, Highway Superintendent Tim Hens, Superintendent, Tim Yaeger, Emergency Management Services Coordinator, Frank Riccobono, Communications Director, Scott Hultz, NYSDOT Resident Engineer for Genesee & Orleans Counties, and Jeff Braley, NYSDOT Resident Engineer for Genesee & Orleans Counties.
Sheriff William Sheron.
County Highway Superintendent Tim Hens
Marianne Clattenburg thanks County Manager Matt Landers for his efforts and leadership during the storm.
Nathan Fix and Tony Johnston of Genesee SnoPackers were among dozens of people recognized for their efforts to save lives during Winter Storm Elliott today in a ceremony in Buffalo.
Many of those recognized received certificates. Fix and Johnston received from Gov. Kathy Hochul The Governor's Medal of Public Service.
He said he and Johnston have been volunteer firefighters for a long time so going out and helping people is just what they do. Still, he said. "It's a great honor, and it reflects well on Genesee Snopackers."
Fix and Johnston, along with Deputy Kevin McCarthy, who rode with them in the Snopackers groomer and received a certificate of recognition, spent 17 hours in Oakfield and Alabama, making their way through heavy wind and snow on snow-covered roads, rescuing people from stranded vehicles.
Submitted photo. Nate Fix, vice president Genesee SnoPackers, Tony Johnston, SnoPackers, Deputy Kevin McCarthy, Emergency Management Coordinator Tim Yager, Deputy Coordinator Gary Patnode, Oakfield Fire Chief Sean Downing, Chad Williams, assistant fire chief, County Legislator Marianne Clattenburg.
Winter Storm Elliott blew into the Town of Alabama again on Saturday night, this time in the form of memories and accolades for first responders during the Alabama Volunteer Fire Department's annual installation and awards banquet.
Alabama Fire sheltered 40 people during the storm, among them the district's own president, Wendy Allen-Thompson, who stopped at the fire hall after she couldn't make it home in the storm. She helped organize the storm response at the shelter. She was impressed by the response of department members as well as the stranded travelers she met during the storm.
"It's a memory of my Christmas and my birthday that I will never forget as long as I live," Allen-Thompson said. "I'm so happy I had the privilege of being a part of it."
Joe Bradt, manager of the Alabama Hotel, which also sheltered travelers during the storm, presented a check to the department for $2,500 -- the amount of money donated by the travelers who rode out the storm at the Hotel.
"What you guys did, I mean, we were there, and we were open, and we fed the people, but you guys got them there," Bradt said."That meant more to us than anything else."
The department received 369 dispatches in 2022, said Chief Gary Patnode. There were only two house fires. Winter Storm Elliott was by far the biggest event of the year for the small, all-volunteer fire department.
It was a storm that was hard emotionally on firefighters, who, by instinct and training, rush to help people. Alabama's members felt overwhelmed at times, as the storm raged and whiteout conditions prevailed, throughout the northwest portion of Genesee County, the chief said.
"When we get the call, and you know that there are 150 open 9-1-1 calls for vehicles that need to be cleared, and you can't see your hand in front of your face, you get overwhelmed with that helplessness feeling," Patnode said. "It's just because we're all Type-A personalities. We want to help people, and when you can't physically see to go out where it's safe, you feel helpless."
But Alabama's volunteers were ready and willing to give a rescue a try every chance they got, Allen-Thompson said.
"I can't even begin to describe the heroism of these guys," Allen-Thompson said. "You couldn't see anything. You couldn't drive. We were getting phone calls from stranded motorists. We had a bunch of them here that were stranded. People were calling 9-1-1, and they weren't getting help as fast as they wished they could, for obvious reasons, and so they just started looking up the number for the fire hall, and they were calling us. Rob (Crossen) would take the call, then another call, and then another caller. And he'd look at me, and I'd look to him, and I think we were all just getting pretty scared that people were gonna literally perish out there in their cars. So it was quite an experience, to say the least. We had people outside working, all these guys were out there in the cold, turning red, beet red, working on trying to help people, and they go out and bring a couple people back."
Crossen was tireless in his efforts, Allen-Thompson said, rescuing seven people, driving his truck with the driver's door open, one foot on the running board, peaking through space between the open door and the windshield to help improve the visibility as he drove.
He and the other volunteers brought back all kinds of people -- people from China, from Canada, from Russia, and other foreign lands.
"We were a melting pot, which is unusual for this area for us," Allen-Thompson said. "I really enjoyed that a lot. I learned a lot. The one guy specifically who made the best rice I've probably ever eaten."
There was one man who was particularly impressed by Crossen.
"Rob kept going and going, and I still remember because it surprised me when a man said, 'you know about Rob Crossen? and I said of course,' but that really got my attention," Allen-Thompson said. "'Yeah, I think I do.' He said, 'Wendy, Rob told me he is 77 years old.' I was like, I couldn't believe it, and he said, 'Yes, Rob told me several times he is 77, and he was driving to save us.'"
Crossen's efforts during the storm are one reason he was named Firefighter of the Year.
Photos by Howard Owens. Top photo, Todd Thompson and Ryan Thompson present Rob Crossen with the Firefighter of the Year Award.
Jerry and Karen Johnson, along with their three children, were special guests of the department for the dinner. The family sheltered 20 stranded travelers during the storm.
Karen said events started for them around 4:30 p.m. on Friday when a State Trooper knocked on their door. His vehicle had been stuck in front of his house for five hours and he only just realized there was a home at his location.
"He goes, 'we got several strange motorists out here.' I said, 'Well, we have a heated shop if they need somewhere to stay, please bring them in.' And he was like, 'well, we're not at that point yet.'"
About an hour and a half later, he said he needed to start bringing stranded motorists to the Johnson's shop.
"One of them was literally at the end of our driveway for five and a half hours, and we didn't even know," Karen said. "We couldn't see him, couldn't hear him."
By the end of Friday night, there were 22 people in the shop plus two state troopers.
"We're like, 'what are you gonna feed these people?' Karen said. "We'll do the best we can, you know. Unfortunately, that night they had a dinner of macaroni and cheese and frozen pizza."
Like other shelter locations, the travelers came from many parts of the world.
The Johnson's children helped entertain the children who came to the shop.
"There was a little girl who was seven years old," Karen said. "She and her family, there were six of them, they were on their way to Hawaii. She got to go in the house most of the time. She played games. My children kept her occupied. When it came time to go, she looked sorry. She looked at her dad, and she goes, 'This was better than going to Hawaii.'"
There was a bit of a Christmas miracle in the Johnson household during the event, Karen revealed.
"For the first time, my kids pulled together for three days," she said. "No arguing."
For The Batavian's complete coverage of Winter Storm Elliott, click here.
Gary Patnode and Wendy Allen-Thompson receive a $2,500 check from Joe Bradt, general manager of the Alabama Hotel.
The Indian Falls Volunteer Fire Department was recognized with the Service Award, presented by Chief Gary Patnode. The award was in recognition of the support on mutual aid calls provided by Dave Olsen, LuAnn Mileham, Chief Ed Mileham, and Matt Delre (not pictured) as members of the Indian Falls department.
"Alabama Fire, like many other agencies, struggles to answer 9-1-1 calls during the day," Patnode said. "For many years these individuals have played a vital role in Alabama Fire being able to respond and answer your calls while providing the necessary patient care until the ambulance arrives."
Congresswoman Claudia Tenney (NY-24) yesterday alongside Congressman Nick Langworthy (NY-23) sent a letter to Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack calling on his agency to do all it can to ensure Western New York farmers can quickly recover from the deadly Winter Storm Elliott.
Winter Storm Elliot has been referred to as the storm of the century, and rightly so. This storm produced over four feet of snow and hurricane-strength winds, resulting in at least 40 deaths across our region and $5.4 billion in losses nationwide. Numerous businesses suffered countless damages, specifically the Western New York agriculture sector.
“[The storm was] devastating to our agricultural producers, who are already struggling with record inflation, high energy and fertilizer prices, and the existing supply chain dysfunctions,” wrote the Republican Lawmakers. “It is imperative for our local and national economy that we provide these producers the help they need to quickly recover from this severe winter storm.”
The Republican lawmakers are calling on the Department of Agriculture to use all the tools at its disposal to accelerate aid distribution and assistance to the affected agricultural businesses across Western New York.
As much of December’s snow has melted away and people’s memories are tucked into winter storm history books, there are folks still assessing the damage caused to the county’s biggest industry: agriculture.
To quote Kendra Lamb of Lamb Farms, the loss was “unprecedented” in terms of milk that had to be dumped due to trucks not being able to navigate the snow-blown roads beginning that Friday, Dec. 23.
All four of Lamb’s operations in Oakfield, Albion, Wilson and Ohio had to dump milk — 46,000 gallons — from milk plants that had frozen from loss of power and then milk trucks out of commission.
“It wasn’t safe for the milk trucks to travel,” she said. “We let it run down the drain into the fields, into the manure lagoons. I think we had prepared ourselves for the possibility; we weren’t going to ask milk trucks to risk driving.”
In addition to the issue of milk product loss, there were the calves, buried in calf hutches that had to be dug out after being pummeled by driving wind and snow. It was all hands on deck, digging down to get to the hutches below, she said.
Some calves suffered frostbite and recovered, though 10 did not, and were humanely euthanized.
“The calf hutches were completely buried in snow. We were concerned our calves were suffocating. We poked holes in the snow, trying to keep them alive,” Lamb said. “We will look into insurance for the milk beyond what the cooperative would cover. We were just so thankful all our people stayed safe. I was very afraid someone could get hurt. For a number of our animals, we were thankful.”
The community has been “incredible,” she said, and everyone jumped into the fray to help out. Those who were stuck at the farm in the snow were shoveled out so that they could in turn, help to free the animals, she said.
Out of 500 calves, “we got 200 out in whiteout conditions,” she said.
The next order of business was to relocate all of those animals to a warm, safe space, as they were snow-covered and wet, with high chances of getting sick. Over the course of several 12-hour days, they were filled with removing animals, removing snow, and putting animals back into a warmer space, and repeat.
“We were stuffing calves everywhere,” she said. “I woke up and asked, ‘where are they?’ The calf facility was ground zero. This one was hopefully a generational storm. We’re breathing a little easier. I think some of us will have some trauma. This was hard. We were scared for the safety of our people and animals.”
Of her 13 years with the farm, they were “the worst days of my life,” she said. Post-storm duty included ensuring as much consistency — which cows like — as possible and to keep floors stable with grit to prevent slipping on icy surfaces and maintaining a regular milking schedule.
“Overall, it was a hugely impactful storm for us,” she said. “It was very, very scary; it was just exhausting, physically and emotionally. We won’t be forgetting this any time soon.”
Lamb isn’t expecting to receive any reimbursement from the state and said the farm will be submitting a claim to its insurance company, though they “aren’t sure about our chances of success.”
A phone call to the Genesee County Farm Bureau for comment and storm-related statistics was referred to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets commissioner, and phone calls to and emails sent there were not returned.
Lamb Farms’ social media posts illustrate how the property went from a happy “Merry Xmas” photo of a colorfully lit tractor on Dec. 4 to the snow-engulfed calf hutches later that month (above), to a more serene sunset over bare roads more recently.
The sun has set on the day, and things are starting to look a little more normal after the brutal blizzard hit on Friday. We were very hard-hit by the storm, and it has been a rough stretch for our farm team. The hard work and dedication of our team and many others willing to step in and help out has been heart-warming and so very appreciated! We end the day tired, physically and mentally, but beyond thankful for each one who has gone above and beyond to help in our time of need! merry xmas lamb farms.
Talk about a sight for sore eyes! The blizzard that hit western NY before Christmas was especially hard on our calf facility. The 500 calves in hutches all had to be dug out and relocated while we cleared snow and re-set hutches. (Before pictures included for reference) While we'll still be dealing with residual effects of the storm for a while, it's nice to see things returning to normal.
Our farm team did an awesome job caring for our animals and clearing snow in the worst conditions, with the help of some very kind friends and family! We're grateful and relieved that our people and animals stayed safe during the storm ... and hope we don't see another one like that for a very long time! Photos from Lamb Farms.
Genesee County's smallest volunteer fire department shouldered a big burden during the pre-Christmas blizzard that blew through Genesee County a week ago, providing rest, warmth and food to about 60 people stranded in the area by the storm.
The Indian Falls Volunteer Fire Department has 12 members, but only six could muster the storm response because the rest were trapped in their homes by heavy snow.
For Chief Ed Mileham, the department's response began Friday morning, Dec. 23, when the dispatchers informed him that deputies had rescued two people and wanted to bring them to the Indian Falls Fire Hall to provide them shelter.
Sure, Mileham said, he would be to the hall in 20 minutes.
But getting there wasn't that easy. The storm was already blowing through the area and the passage from his home on Indian Falls Road to the fire hall on Route 77 was already covered in snow drifts. It took close to half an hour for him to make the trip.
At 2 p.m., a couple more people arrived, then a few more, then a few more.
"After a couple more people arrived, I called Lu (Lu Anne Mileham) and said, 'hey, can you put out a message to anyone available?'" Mileham said.
Dave Olsen said he couldn't get out of his yard, but Mileham spoke with another resident who had a snowplow, and he went and cleared a path for Olsen and his son Max.
With Max Olsen on board, the department could start participating in some rescues.
"I started to get actual phone calls here at the Fire Hall," Mileham said. "'Hey, we're stuck here. We're stuck there.' Max went out, picked them up and brought them in. By five o'clock, I think we had 12 people here. By six o'clock, I called Lu and I said, 'Hey, can you do some sloppy joes up?' I said. 'I got 12 people down here,' but the time she got done making sloppy joes and I sent Max down to pick them up, and it was seven o'clock, and we had 20 people."
By midnight, the count was up to 40 people, and by Saturday morning, it was 60.
And it was quite a mix of people -- a group of young Asians, a couple from Munich, a couple from Poland, folks from California going to Niagara Falls, an ER doctor returning from work in Rochester to his home in Williamsville. There were people from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Canada, and Maryland.
"It was a large number of people that were either coming from or going to Canada," Max said. "I think that might have been like a GPS thing. It wasn't the whole crowd by any means, but there was a definite consistency that they were all using their GPS, and it kept closing roads and redirecting them, so like, it seemed they kind of almost got funneled into this area."
The Indian Falls response to this influx of people was handled by Ed Mileham, Lu Anne Mileham, Dave Olsen, Max Olsen, Matt Delre, and Randy Filter.
The leadership came from Mileham, and Dave Olsen gives him all the credit for keeping things in order.
"We got a lot of comments that (the situation) was handled, probably, as best as it possibly could be," Olsen said. "With some of the people, they complimented the chief quite a bit for his professionalism and the way he kept everything in order and had a plan and kept things written down. You know, he had an organization. He thought ahead. He thought about getting the food and things that, Most of us were just thinking about, 'Oh, what's the next fresh hell is that this storm is going to bring?'"
No serious issues
In Oakfield, volunteers were called upon to deal with a couple of hypothermia cases that were very serious. Indian Falls was spared any dire medical cases but there was a woman who arrived at the hall from Oakfield. She has epilepsy and had left home without her medication. It had been more than eight years since she'd had a seizure. After several hours, she informed Mileham that she was getting a headache, so he arranged for one of the convoys that were sweeping the area to pick up stranded motorists to transport her back to Oakfield.
Then there was the guy who showed up in a kevlar vest packing a sidearm.
It turns out he is private security for a company in Rochester.
"He walked in, and there were like five deputies, and one was Joe Graff (the chief deputy of investigations)," Mileham said. "He comes walking in. He's got his bulletproof vest on. He's got his pistol on. It's like two o'clock in the morning. 'Whoa, wait, who are you? Let's see your permit.' Had no ID. No wallet. Nothing."
He had left his wallet in his car.
The deputies took his vest and gun and secured it, and told him he could pick it up Monday at the Sheriff's Office.
"The guy said, 'Hey, I've got no problem with it. I'll see you Monday or Tuesday.'"
That level of cooperation was apparent throughout the two days folks were stranded at the Indian Falls Fire Hall, Mileham said. People just got along and cooperated.
The first night's sleeping arrangements weren't ideal. Since the number of travelers coming through the area was unexpected, Indian Falls wasn't quite prepared to host 60 people. There were no cots or blankets on hand.
Fortunately, the hall's floor is heated.
"Everybody said that, once they got laid on the floor, they were pretty warm and comfortable," Mileham said.
The Red Cross delivered cots and blankets on Saturday so the second night at the shelter was a bit more comfortable.
Feeding sixty unexpected guests
The hard part was food.
Lu Anne Mileham hadn't exactly prepared to feed 60 travelers, but with the storm coming, she had stocked up in case she needed to feed department members.
"On Wednesday or Thursday, I happened to be at BJs and I thought, you know what, I'll pick up a couple of loaves of bread, some chips, some lunch meat and stuff," Lu Anne said. "I'm thinking if our guys get caught here, at least we'll have that, and we've got water and soda in the fridge, so but at least they'll have something to eat a little bit."
She also had some supplies at home, and with some kids in the hall, a couple of boxes of mac and cheese came in handy.
On Saturday morning, Mileham contacted Crosby's in Corfu and ordered six sheets of breakfast pizza.
Later that day, he ordered pizza from a new pizza shop in Corfu, and by then, he was aware that some of the Indians in the group were vegans, so he had to get some meatless options. One guy wanted a white sauce pizza, too, so Mileham ordered a pizza with white sauce.
The one difficulty Mileham couldn't solve for one of his department's guests was getting the Buffalo Bills game on the TV. Spectrum was out of service during the storm.
"He goes, 'really?' I go, 'Hey, I'm with you. If you can get it on your phone, great."
When The Batavian told Tim Yaeger, Genesee County's emergency management coordinator, that we were doing a story about the storm response of the Indian Falls Volunteer Fire Department, he texted back immediately, "Ed and Lu Anne Mileham specifically are truly amazing people. From working the COVID vaccination site at GCC to covering calls in the West Battalion on a daily basis, we would be lost and in trouble without them."
It turns out, so would have been a bunch of people from throughout North America and Europe on Dec. 23 and 24 when Winter Storm Elliott hit Western New York.
Editor’s Note: At the risk of seeming redundant, The Batavian believes that Winter Storm Elliott easily became the biggest story of 2022, and there are many people, groups, businesses, and municipalities that are deserving of the spotlight for their contributions to assist the hundreds stranded in Genesee County during the Christmas weekend. This is another of those stories.
There have been stories of rescue involving fire halls, a community center, hotels, a church, and now, one of the schools that stepped up to help people during Winter Storm Elliott.
As the storm invaded portions of Genesee County on Dec. 23, Elba Volunteer Fire Department member Mandy Esten contacted Elba Central School Superintendent Gretchen Rosales about using the school as a warming shelter.
“As the superintendent of Elba Central, I've firmly stood behind my belief that the school is the center of our small community and that it belongs to all of the people of Elba,” Rosales said to The Batavian Saturday. “If it can be used as a source of shelter and comfort during a treacherous storm, all the better. The systems that a school already has in place are a natural fit for dealing with a crisis; we already provide food, shelter, warmth, and comfort to our students.
“This was an easy decision,” she said. "I reached out to my leadership team, as well as the Board of Education, to inform them that the school would be used as a warming shelter for those who were stranded or in need of a warm place to stay due to loss of power.”
From that moment on, Rosales witnessed a barrage of generosity and leadership from school staff about the clothing closet, a collection of personal hygiene items, and blankets and wheelchairs in the school nurse’s station; from the Elba Betterment Committee which made food for the stranded travelers; and a tech-savvy student who streamed cartoons for children on a screen in the cafeteria.
“The Elba community is incredible, and I'm so thankful for the great relationship we have with the Elba Fire Department. Mandy is a rockstar and coordinated things inside the school,” Rosales said. “My phone was ringing non-stop with offers for help and supplies. Initially, the onset of the storm provided us with a challenge as we were unable to mobilize a big response. But via phone messages, texts, and picture messages, I was able to help Mandy get the coffee going and to tell her where they could find additional coats and warm clothing.”
Kim Walczak, who is the district’s acting cafeteria manager, arrived the next morning and made breakfast while yet another student shared that the yoga mats in Mrs. Morgan's classroom would make great sleeping mats, Rosales said.
“Teachers and other staff members, as well as parents, were texting and emailing constantly, asking how to help from afar,” she said. “It was really a collective effort, which is what our school and community is all about.”
City of Batavia Police staff brought more cots and blankets for the community by that Saturday, Christmas eve. They also dropped off food “from so many businesses that wanted to help out,” she said.
Rosales estimated that at least 50 travelers were hosted at the school. And as she, and many others, learned, it evolved into more than a place for education.
“A school is not just about the building where the learning happens; they offer comfort and care,” she said. “Even though the storm was a scary experience for so many, I'm glad that Elba Central was able to be a shelter for those who needed it.”
Although this storm has been cited as being worse than the dreaded blizzard of ’77, at least one online poster sees a positive difference.
“Wow, they never did that when I went to school in the 60s and 70s! Glad they are now!” he wrote on the district’s social media page.
Editor’s Note: At the risk of seeming redundant, The Batavian believes that Winter Storm Elliott easily became the biggest story of 2022, and there are many people, groups, businesses, and municipalities that are deserving of the spotlight for their contributions to assist the hundreds stranded in Genesee County during the Christmas weekend. This is another of those stories.
Try to imagine yourself on a trip, excitedly going to visit family for the holidays.
Only you get stuck in a big snowstorm and have to hang out with a bunch of strangers and quite possibly sleep on the floor.
That was no imaginary scenario last weekend for the more than 100 people stranded at Grace Baptist Church. And their response was anything but expected, Pastor Jeff Bartz says.
“Strangers became like friends and family; we genuinely enjoyed each other,” he said Friday. “People were generally overwhelmed by (those who came to help).”
As Dec. 23’s storm became more apparent and dangerous, county officials began to organize warming shelters for stranded motorists. Sheriff Bill Sheron reached out to Grace Baptist in Batavia to see if the Vine Street site could be a shelter. There was no hesitation, Bartz said.
“We were excited just to be able to help,” he said. “We were waiting in the foyer, and people started coming. Once they started … it started flowing.”
His wife Jami added that “We grabbed all of our extra blankets, cereal and milk from home” and then shuffled people into various rooms at the church. They put the call out that they were accepting stranded travelers. And those travelers continued to arrive, easily surpassing 100 by Friday evening, she said.
The couple reflected on a scripture referring to God being a shelter in the storm, and the church was literally transformed into just that. And in quite the storm. By all accounts from area rescue workers, including Jeff who is with the International Guard Reserves, Elliott far surpassed others, including the blizzard of '77. Genesee County took in more than 700 travelers from Dec. 23 to 25.
Although most Grace Baptist visitors had their vehicles in the nearby parking lot — unlike so many others who got stuck in snow — they not only stayed for safety's sake but come Christmas morning, also for a stunning reason, Jeff said.
Travelers asked if he would perform a service that morning, and so he prepared one. Focusing on the first chapter of Luke, he talked about the aspects of God’s love, many of which had been demonstrated for all to see that weekend, Jeff said.
“So we gathered in our sanctuary and sang the timeless, treasured carols we all know and love. We read and reflect on God’s love for us in sending His Son, Jesus, to save us from our sin … and how God shows through the Christmas story that He is mindful of us, mighty over us, and merciful to us,” he said. “We were literally experiencing those truths while we weathered the blizzard in the warm safety of our Christmas storm shelter.
“Immediately after the service, we were informed the travel ban was lifted,” he said. “But some didn’t want to leave. We hugged each other, cried together, exchanged contact information, and stuck around and took pictures together. We didn’t want what many called ‘the best Christmas ever’ to end.”
Yes, after all of the potential anger, frustration, irritation and disappointment that travelers could have reasonably felt, they instead seemed to grasp the moments of true caring for one another, he and Jami said.
“It was a representation of the true meaning of Christmas,” Jami said. “It was one of those unique opportunities to be presented for people to do something. It was Christmas, but life stopped for everybody at Grace Baptist, and they just rallied.”
Community and church members pitched in with homemade meals, Batavia’s Original sent over several pizzas, Salvation Army sent over food, American Red Cross sent cots, county and city officials worked to get supplies, food and water to the shelter, and even the Bartz’s two younger sons, Michael, 16, and 14-year-old Timmy, hung out and played with the kids, and set up coffee and hot chocolate.
Timmy imagined how it would feel to be in their position.
“I thought it would probably stink,” he said.
With holiday movies playing, dozens of strangers mingling, three dogs, a cat, and an albino ball python added to the mix, it was, indeed, a good Christmas for folks such as Nick and Marijana Bankovic, who were traveling from New York City to Canada with their kids Emilija and Jovan when they got stuck in Batavia due to the winter storm
They were some fo the many people who sent notes to thank Grace Baptist for its hospitality. They also wanted to share a snippet of their time at Grace with The Batavian after feeling “like everything that could possibly go wrong was happening,” the couple said.
“The kindness, help and warmth that I have seen from everyone from the stranded travelers, the members of the church, Batavia law enforcement, the residents and business of Batavia and the surrounding community brought tears of joy to my eyes,” they said in an email. “The below-freezing cold weather, the blinding snowstorm, running low on gas, food and drinks, driving five miles per hour, falling into the ditch, slipping and falling down, hurting my back and elbow at the McDonald’s rest stop area on I-90 near Rochester … It took the Batavia community and fellow travelers to show me no matter how many bad things happen there will always be good warm-hearted people who are willing to do what they can to help and make things better.”
Photos of travelers stranded from Winter Storm Elliott during Christmas 2022 weekend taking refuge at Grace Baptist Church in Batavia; eating, talking, joking, playing and enjoying time with one another. Photos submitted by Jeff and Jami Bartz.
Ever since the Christmas weekend blizzard, there have been stories of rescues, heroism, movie-making camaraderie, generosity and trust amongst strangers.
For Susan Zeliff — who with husband Peter Jr. opened up a warming shelter during the three-day storm — there was another story in her mind that certainly captured the holiday spirit.
“I feel a lot of the thought I had was, it has a lot of similarities to the Mary and Joseph story,” Zeliff said Friday. “Here are these people seeking refuge, to find a place to sleep.That scenario crossed my mind a lot.”
Mary and husband Joseph, arguably one of the most well-known stories in the Bible (first chapter of Matthew), could not find shelter on their journey, and ended up finding a manger for rest. Hundreds of strangers traveling to see family and friends found themselves on a similar journey of being in need of warmth, comfort and a place to rest their heads.
Dozens of those travelers ended up at the “GOOSE,” a community center in the heart of Oakfield. As last Friday (Dec. 23) wore on, members of Oakfield Fire Hall had been besieged by motorists stuck in the blizzard, and Ed Spence, the department’s chaplain, asked if there was anything he could do to help. Someone suggested using The GOOSE as a warming shelter.
Spence contacted Peter Friday, and his reply was, “give me five minutes.” They were soon on their way to transforming the Main Street center into a shelter by moving tables and bringing in food and drinks.
“We were getting ready for the influx of what we thought was about to happen,” Spence said. “Pete and I were meeting them at the door, welcoming them. They came, and they just kept coming.”
When the flow of visitors stopped, there were 60 people and a dog at the site, Susan Zeliff said. She credits her husband for taking “a good chunk of the responsibility” for these strangers in need of a safe place to stay, and Spence, plus a community ready to assist with homemade and packaged foods, pillows, blankets, and coloring books for the children.
Two residents graciously — and deliciously — baked bread, with one woman making 12 loaves and the other one adding pasta to her bread. The aroma made Zeliff want to take it home, she joked; it was that fragrantly mouth-watering.
“The whole community kind of rallied together,” she said. “We did soup for lunch, and thankfully we had gotten a shipment of milk so there was cereal for breakfast. I was not too worried since we had the food pantry. And people were reaching out to us.”
A common thread amongst the travelers, per others who have spoken about their experiences, was also true at the GOOSE, Susan said: most people were of international descent, including India, Japan and China, and many who did not speak English. Spence added that there was usually one person per family group that served as interpreter, and communication was not a big problem.
Some Muslims took solace in the back of a room to pray, and there was a lot of gratitude throughout the three-day ordeal, he said.
People wiled away the time charging their phones, talking, checking the weather and getting in touch with those that were waiting for them on the other end of their trip. Despite the circumstances and odds for anger and frustration to rule the day, it wasn’t like that at all, Spence said.
“It was wonderful, they were smiling, and they were extremely polite,” he said. “I asked people to stand up and introduce themselves. There was a lot of laughing and joking, believe it or not.”
As a retired firefighter of 14 years, he has seen a lot of weather events, with this now being “the worst I’ve ever seen.” As with the Zeliffs, he was impressed with the response of the community and volunteer responders.
“I can’t say enough about the fire departments in Oakfield and Alabama (and throughout Genesee County),” he said. “And I can’t say enough about the emergency manager Tim Yaeger. He did a fantastic job.”
Spence’s own Friday evening got off to a rocky start. He picked up his wife Wendy from her job at United Memorial Medical Center, and got her to her mother’s house in Oakfield; however, he found it tough going from there. Driving with his head out the window, he drove “two miles an hour to get not even a mile,” he said, and that took 40 minutes. At one point, his truck got stuck in the snow and he needed to be pulled out.
Most of his holiday weekend was spent as a liaison between the 60 travelers and Oakfield fire personnel. When some people tried to leave in their vehicles, he told them point blank: if you go out there, you’re going to die. Blunt, yes, but he felt those people needed a simple truth.
While it may seem as though the stress and inconvenience would have wrenched anyone’s nerves, people stepped up to the circumstances, he said.
“People made the best out of a bad situation, people were phenomenal,” he said. “It was a really positive event.”
Likewise, Susan believes the weekend was a good lesson in the universal language of kindness.
“Just for people to take care of people, it doesn't matter. Your culture doesn't matter. Your skin type doesn't matter. Even your language,” she said. “They couldn't understand us, we didn't understand them, but we made it work.”
Photo of an online post from The GOOSE Community Center explaining that "this is what the lunch looks like for about 50 people hanging at The GOOSE in the blizzard." The canned goods were available from the center's food pantry.
Assemblyman Steve Hawley (R, C, I-Batavia) is thanking emergency responders for their actions after Western New York’s brutal holiday snowstorm. Emergency employees are continuing to assist citizens who have been snowed into their homes and vehicles during this historic blizzard. The duties of our first responders are extremely important this time of year, especially the work of our highway crews, snow removal personnel and state and municipal snow plow operators.
“I would like to thank all of our incredible emergency employees and utility workers for their efforts to protect those in our area,” said Hawley. “I hope all of those in my district was safe at home during the holiday weekend blizzards. We know how difficult this weather can be in our area, but this is an important reminder that we have individuals who will be outside in these conditions, ready to assist us. Thank you to our first responders for delivering blankets, pillows, water and other necessities to those in need. They are true heroes to our region, especially during Western New York’s brutal winter months.”
It took a few days for Thera Sanchez to process her holiday weekend before she felt able to describe it.
After all, she and partner Pavel Belov hadn't expected events to unfold quite as they did since the unrelenting storm blew in Friday and hovered over their Oakfield residence and nearby roadways. While they remained at home, hundreds of motorists were trying to navigate unknown territory after being moved off the Thruway Friday.
Without knowledge of what they were driving into, many of those motorists got stuck in piles of windblown snow with little to no visibility of what surrounded them. Around 7:30 p.m., the couple noticed two sets of headlights out on the road, Sanchez said.
"We kept checking to see if we could see them until about 10 p.m. We got dressed up in our hunting gear and went to help them. The moment we stepped off of the porch, the snow was stinging my face. I put my glasses on to keep the snow away from my eyes, but the air was so cold it was hard to keep them open," she said. "Both of us, with flashlights and shovels in our hands, we find the road. We walk towards the headlights. We see the two. Then I saw three. Then I saw four. There were seven. We went up to each one and invited all into our home."
By last count, they had 11 strangers in their house. A friend stayed in her car because she had two dogs with her, and the Belov-Sanchez couple has three dogs of their own, she said. She and Pavel brought her food, treats and water and kept a check on her throughout the weekend.
Meanwhile, others just celebrated getting out of their vehicles.
"Some cried and some were just so happy to stand. We had friends from India, the Philippines, South Carolina, Maryland, and a couple were local. Whether they were heading home or to family Christmas, their trip was longer than expected. They were stranded," Sanchez said. "There was one guy who was in deep trouble. We almost didn't see his white van in the snow, but Pavel did, and went back for him. He had run out of gas and was sitting there for five hours in the cold, with just a hoodie, sweatpants and slippers on."
Their guests stayed with them untill Sunday morning, when roads had been cleaned and Storm Elliott finally retreated from the area. As people often do in the face of a crisis, Belov and Sanchez offered hospitality and cared for their guests for the duration. They didn't even feel the toll until it was over, Sanchez said.
"Hosting that many people with the stress of Christmas -- and then the stress of it being canceled -- was intense. Yet, we still had a blast together and toasted on Christmas Eve," she said. "We didn't feel it until everyone was gone. It's been an emotional rollercoaster since."
They weren't the only ones to feel the weight of the situation. What began as a fun trip to see the Bare Naked Ladies ended as an emotional breakdown of relief for traveler Angela Saiz and her passenger.
Saiz, of Rockville, MD, and friend Stephanie Argoe of South Carolina were in Toronto to see the concert last Thursday and had planned to return Friday morning. Flights were canceled due to the storm, so they decided to rent a car and drive.
As hundreds of travelers learned on Friday, their trip on the Thruway would get abruptly cut off when a travel ban was issued and a large portion of the Thruway closed.
“As soon as we crossed the border, conditions changed so quickly,” Saiz said Monday to The Batavian. “I couldn't believe that I didn't get some kind of Amber Alert like I get. Nothing came through on my phone that said travel ban, no driving, seek refuge, nothing.
“My rental car was doing just fine until, it was just, the whiteout hit so quick,” she said.
Their journey had been diverted from the Thruway onto side roads through Genesee County. Saiz was navigating down drift-covered rural roads with patches of visibility until there was nothing to see through her windshield. They got stuck in a snow drift and a good samaritan pulled them out, but by that time, conditions were deteriorating and “it was not safe to drive,” she said.
They called for help at 3:40 p.m. Friday, and Genesee County dispatch told them to hang tight and that someone would be there in a couple of hours. They also called AAA dispatch, which told them no one was allowed to drive into that area.
Meanwhile, the women waited in the car — thankfully with a full tank of gas they estimated would provide heat for at least 24 hours — but without water or food.
Saiz emphasized that she’s no newbie to the world of travel, having been a flight attendant and flying for her career some 200 times a year, and her husband is a commercial landscaper, so she’s also aware of how to deal with snow.
What she wasn’t prepared for, though, were the complete whiteouts and radio silence after two hours turned into several. They were stranded at the corner of Lewiston and Lockport roads.
“Every three hours we would call dispatch just to get an update. My frustration was that communication was horrific. All I wanted was the truth … I just wanted to know, do I need to mentally prepare to be in this car all night?” she said. “About after midnight, all of a sudden, we could see other cars. There was a car next to us, we could see lights and flashers on other cars. You couldn't tell how close or far away they were. And so, finally, we saw two people coming toward us that we thought were emergency workers. And I rolled my window down, and we both started crying. And they said, ‘we live across the street; we're happy to bring you in.’”
The couple, known as Pavel and Thera, said they lived across the street and offered shelter for the two women, who replied that someone was coming for them.
“They’re not coming,” Thera said, explaining that they had been listening to a scanner.
Still, two women going to a stranger’s house seemed daunting, Saiz said, and their nervousness made them a bit hesitant. Then they saw other vehicles emptying out their occupants that were going to the house, so Saiz and Argoe decided to join them.
That Lockport Road couple, Pavel and Thera, offered refuge for 11 people, all of who stayed with them Friday evening throughout Saturday and that night.
There was the couple from Pennsylvania, just 30 minutes away from a cousin they were going to see; newlyweds from Delaware heading to Toronto; and another couple from Dallas, Texas. There was a single man from Spencerport, not even wearing warm clothing or snow boots in lieu of slipper socks, who was trying to get to The Rez. He would have surely frozen to death out there, Saiz said.
They all made the best of it and took in the host’s generous offerings of food, drink and bedding, Saiz said.
“They gave us water, offered us food, I think we were all just a little in shock and grateful to be alive at this point,” she said.
Eventually, firefighters — who were making rescues throughout the weekend and battling the same blinding snow conditions themselves — made it to the house and said they’d return to take people to Oakfield Fire Hall.
They offered to take the stranded travelers’ keys and move their vehicles to Oakfield-Alabama school’s parking lot, which had just been plowed. All of the visitors opted to do that, except for the one woman who remained in her car with her dog.
No one ended up returning that night, and the visitors stayed put.
By Sunday morning, the sky was blue, and the roads seemed clear. But no one had returned with the car keys, Saiz said, so they waited some more.
She had inadvertently left her medication in the car and, after another long period of time, called dispatch again, saying that she really needed her meds.
When Genesee County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Henning showed up, he was a great help, she said.
“He was amazing; he got us to our car, and he cleaned off the windshields for us,” she said.
“I got home at 5 p.m. Sunday,” she said. “My family waited to have Christmas with me. It was quite the experience.
“When I walked into my home and got upstairs, I just wept uncontrollably and sobbed, holding my children, my husband, so incredibly thankful. I'm emotional, just talking about it,” she said. “I've never, ever felt that I might not make it home. I've never been in a situation where I felt that I actually thought I might die. And I felt that way in the car.
“These people were angels and a godsend for bringing us in and feeding us and providing bedding … we had places to sleep. And it was amazing and a miracle. They're good people, and I'm so appreciative, and my family is appreciative of what this couple did,” she said.
Submitted Photo of Thera Sanchez, back row left, and Pavel Belov, back row, right, with Angela Saiz, to the right of Thera, and Stephanie Argoe in front of her holding a dog, along with the other travelers that got a rescue from the Oakfield couple this past weekend.
Tow truck operators don't get a lot of media attention. They show up at an accident scene and might get in a few news photos as they hook up disabled vehicles to haul away, but they never get credit for helping to clear the roadway so traffic can flow again.
During Winter Storm Elliott, the county's tow truck operators were as essential as anybody else in getting people back on the road, and for saving stranded motorists.
And it was hard, hazardous work, some of them told The Batavian during interviews the past couple of days.
"I'm only 27," said Chad Dickinson of Dickinson Auto and Towing in Batavia. "I've never seen anything like this before, these blizzard conditions. It was very treacherous at times, kind of scary at some points."
For Jacob Gross and Greg Lyons, who were joined in the effort by their boss, Cameron Selapack of L&L Transmission and Towing, there were aspects of the work that were just another day at the office. They found stuck cars and wenched them out and then either watched the owners drive off or brought the cars back to the shop or other safe location for storage.
"We're kind of used to it," Gross said. "But nobody should have been out on those roads. It was quite out of the ordinary."
It was bizarre at times, said Steve Grice, towing operations manager at Dan's Tire.
There were drivers in sandals, drivers with no phones, drivers who left the house with no charger and only a 20 percent charge on their phones, drivers low on gas, and drivers who put getting from one place to another a higher priority than themselves or their families, he said.
"I came across one guy, and I said, 'Sir, I'm gonna get you guys out because you are trapped in your vehicle, but why aren't you home with your family?" Grice recalled. "He said, 'Well, we need to get to the Christmas party.' I said, 'Your lives are at stake here. You need to get home.' And his wife leaned over, and she goes, 'thank you.' We pulled them out, and they went on their way."
Grice encountered a lot of people from Canada, such as the family in the story above, as well as other states. As has been noted by county officials, most of these people wound up on Genesee County's backcountry roads because the Thruway closed, and they were following GPS maps.
"You wouldn't believe the number of people who said, 'Well, Siri said to go this way,'" Grice said. "I don't think Siri knows what's going on inside your car, you know? I mean, it's like you've got to look at the weather. You've got to know where you're going."
Gross and Lyons said they were surprised by how many people were out on the roads in the midst of a travel ban.
"We're hooking somebody up, and people continue driving by trying to get from Point A to Point B or wherever they were going, even though there was a travel ban," Lyons said.
"We even saw people out walking," Gross added.
You know things are bad when tow truck operators got stuck, and that's what happened to Grice and a member of his team on Friday.
The Thruway Authority had asked Dan's to send a truck eastbound to check on some vehicles because they couldn't be reached from the west. When the driver was ready to return to Batavia, he got stuck, so Grice drove out to retrieve him. He became stuck. They were out there until 10 the next morning until a truck from the Thruway authority helped them get moving again.
Grice said he had a lot of sympathy for the people who got stranded in their vehicles, and there was no way for search and rescue teams to get to them for hours.
"It was mentally just exhausting," Grice said. "And just sitting there thinking about the other people that were trapped out there and how people couldn't get to them. It was just a feeling of helplessness that was just overwhelming, you know, and it just was terrible."
Dan's ran three trucks with five crew members on Friday night, and when things cleared a bit on Friday, they had five trucks out.
Dickinson had four flatbeds and two wreckers running.
L&L had three trucks out.
The Batavian didn't have time to reach out to the other tow truck companies in the county, but they were all involved in vehicle recovery efforts throughout the event.
Winter Storm Elliott is a couple of days of work Grice said he won't soon forget.
"It was amazing," he said. "Some of the cars we pulled out, you open the hood and the engine bays were just packed. They looked like big ice cubes in there. It was just amazing. With some of the cars, the snow had gotten in around the door jams and filled them with snow. It was quite a sight to be seen."
Gross and Lyons won't forget it, either.
"Nothing compares to this one," Gross said. "This one was kind of crazy."
Heading out on one of his search and rescue missions during the blizzard on Friday, Joshua Finn said he had two fears.
That they would find somebody dead in a car.
Or that he wouldn't make it home, himself.
He came close to both tragic outcomes, he thought, around 1 a.m. on Saturday when he and another volunteer firefighter from Oakfield came across a pickup truck stuck on Judge Road. Its flashers were barely flashing, so he knew it had been there a long time. The battery was nearly dead. Inside, they found a 60-year-old man and his 27-year-old daughter.
"They were both hypothermic, and they were completely saturated," Finn said. "The snow was blowing through the cracks in the vehicle."
With great effort, Finn, another EMT and other volunteers got them out of the pickup and into a rescue truck and started the drive back to the Oakfield Fire Hall. It was a scary trip, he said. They weren't sure they would make it back in zero visibility conditions.
"Colin and I couldn't get the interior dome lights to shut off because the door button was frozen," Finn said. "We couldn't see much because there was a light inside the cab. We had to have the windows down to look out the windows to drive. Colin says, 'Finn, go left, Finn, go right,' and we're going at one mile an hour. I got frost nip on my ears from because all I had was my firefighting hood. I was shivering by the time we got back with them."
A perfect storm
The dangers of the storm were exacerbated by a Thruway Authority that shut down the I-90 with no plan to send travelers on safe routes and with Google and Apple map technology ill-equipped to warn drivers of dangerous weather conditions and send them on routes that would take them around the hazardous roads.
Landers observed during the storm that in a situation that might have otherwise involved a handful of local people getting trapped on snow-covered roads, there were hundreds of cars that got stuck.
More than 700 people, most of them not from New York, wound up in one of 11 warming centers, and it's unclear how many others were taken in by residents who opened their doors when strangers came knocking during the storm.
The task of rescuing motorists fell to quickly assembled teams of deputies, highway crews, and volunteer firefighters.
And with winds over 35 mph and temperatures well below zero, and a forecast of storm conditions persisting for at least 48 hours, search and rescue teams didn't have the luxury of waiting until daylight or until the weather cleared. They had to head out in the dead of night with the resources available.
Gary Patnode is both the deputy emergency management coordinator for Genesee County and the Chief of the Alabama Volunteer Fire Department. He was right in the thick of it when the storm hit.
He praised dispatchers for helping triage stranded motorists.
Those with full gas tanks were told to keep their engines running and wait unless they could see a house nearby they could safely get to. When they had less than a quarter tank of gas or a medical condition, they became a priority to rescue.
Among the medical conditions being reported -- "trouble breathing."
Patnode found that understandable. You're out there not knowing how, when, or if you will be rescued.
"I think that was a direct result of anxiety, you know, from being in an unfamiliar area, it's pitch black out because there are no streetlights out there,and that snow is blowing," Patnode said.
"Every car, every window that we cleaned off, I just held my breath, you know, hoping that I didn't find a body in there," Patnode said. "That was the big thing."
It takes a village
While the brunt of the storm fell on Oakfield and Alabama, and volunteer departments in those communities had a total of more than 30 volunteers participate in search and rescue operations, nearly every department in the county sent either personnel or equipment, and usually both, such as Le Roy, Alexander, and Bethany, to the northwest quadrant to help out, along with Genesee Snopackers.
On the paid side of responders, there were Sheriff's deputies, personnel from Orleans and Livingston counties, State Police, State Parks, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and Batavia city police and fire departments.
In Oakfield and Alabama, community residents also pitched in, either by offering shelter, delivering supplies, moving snow, or cooking meals. The Oakfield Fire Hall became a warming shelter and housed several dozen people during the storm. There were so many travelers emotionally affected by the storm and being stranded that Downing took their phone numbers to follow up with them after they returned to their homes.
"We are still contacting them to find out how they're doing and that they're okay, you know, checking on their mental health," Downing said. "It's traumatizing for a lot of these people to be stranded and then have to be rescued. We want to make sure that they're okay."
During the weekend, stranded travelers also needed to be fed, so the community fed them. One firefighter's wife baked her Christmas ham and brought it in. Wives and girlfriends showed up to make breakfast. Meals and supplies were delivered from Batavia. H.P. Hood donated dairy products.
At one point, Oakfield Fire Chief Sean Downing was worried about being able to feed all these people for a couple of days and soon, he realized the community was taking care of it.
When Downing had to get home to check on his wife, Jeremy Yasses plowed his driveway so he could park. Another community resident made sure the driveways of other volunteers were cleared so they could easily drop in and check on their families.
"People would come up to us and go, 'Oh, if I could just brush my teeth,'" Downing recalled. "then William Sturgeon thought to himself, he says, 'You know what, I have kids. We go to the dentist and they always give us toothpaste and toothbrushes, and dental floss,' so he ran home, which wasn't far from the Fire Hall, and came back with about 20 toothbrushes and the people were ecstatic that they could at least brush their teeth."
It's the little things, Downing said, that make a big difference.
"They say that it takes a village," said Downing. "Well, it's more than the village. It was the entire town and village of Oakfield that was calling and coming together and getting us whatever we needed to be able to take care of these people. They understood what was going on and what we were going through, and they wanted to make sure that any little bit that they could do, they did."
The department had hosted a Christmas party for its members a couple of days before the storm, and there were still wrapped presents for children under the tree, so the kids at the shelter had Christmas presents to open.
The children were kept in the department's second-floor rec room. Downing wanted to shield them from any potential life-saving situations in the main bay of the fire hall.
"I think we had a total of three or four hypothermic patients throughout the event," Downing said. "The one gentleman that Josh was talking about was our first patient, and the medics came up to me at one time and said, 'We do not think, based on what we're seeing on the monitors and whatnot, and what we're talking about, he may not make it. But again, he pulled through. Once he warmed up, everything started to change for him. He was one of our first patients in the building, and he was the last one to leave our building after the event."
To treat hypothermic patients in a field-hospital situation, medics stripped them of all their cold, wet clothes and wrapped them in blankets. A couple of firefighters' wives kept supplying warm blankets from the department's clothes dryer.
Finn doesn't remember where he had seen it done before or where he got the idea from, but he suggested taking hand-warming packets and taping them to IV bags, so the fluid being given to patients was warmed.
While there were "official" warming shelters at fire halls -- such as Indian Falls, besides Oakfield, and schools, such as Elba -- there were several unofficial warming shelters, such as Alabama Hotel. Grace Baptist Church in Batavia also opened as a warming shelter. Patnode listed off five or six homes that took in six, seven, and eight stranded travelers and one resident on Macomber Road had at least 50 people sheltering in his garage.
"It was just remarkable how the community came together," Patnode said. "You know, even for us as an organization, when you're working with a volunteer fire department, there are so many different personalities, and everybody just sets that stuff aside and just works together."
There was no shortage of gratitude among the travelers who were rescued.
Downing noted that many of the department's guests pitched in and helped, cleaning up, shoveling snow, moving supplies as needed.
The boldest gesture of gratitude perhaps came from the first woman Finn rescued.
On Friday, as the storm began to roll in, he decided he couldn't stay at his job in Batavia. He had to get home to his family and his community.
As he drove toward Oakfield, he heard a call for a stuck vehicle with a woman finding it difficult to breathe. He told dispatchers to keep the ambulance in Batavia, where it couldn't get stuck, while he checked it out.
He found a woman from Canada, with her daughter, having a panic attack.
He told her not to worry. He told her to follow him to Oakfield, where there was a warming shelter.
He said the drive on Route 63 was difficult. The whiteout conditions were disorienting, and at one point, he went off the road and became stuck in a ditch himself.
"You didn't know what was up or down," Finn said. "At one point, I was going two miles an hour, and I ended up in a ditch. The only reason why I got out, and it's no joke, I swear to God, I think what saved my life was a deputy named Richard Schildwaster came along with his truck and got me out."
When they got to the hall, the woman from Canada wanted to thank Finn in a big way. She offered him a piece of jewelry.
"She kept saying you saved my life," Finn said. "You guys, you saved my life. She tried to give me this 24-karat gold ring and put it in my hand and would not take it back and I'm like, 'I can't. I can't. This is what we do. I'm not taking your ring.'
"She was, 'you have to.' I'm like, 'It's okay. I didn't do anything. I just had you follow me.' I'm like, 'I can't take this from you.' And she's like, 'You have to.'
"So I dialed my wife. I said, 'talk to my wife' because my wife was not happy that I left Batavia to come to Oakfield, and I didn't tell her what I was doing until I got to the village, and I said, 'I'm in Oakfield. Don't be mad.' So I was like, 'Here, talk to my wife.'
"I don't even know what conversation they had, but it settled down my wife."
Submitted photos. Top photo: Justin Cooper, Tera Williams, Joshua Finn, Chief Sean Downing, Assistant Chief Chad Williams, Buck Hilchey
Near whiteout conditions outside Alabama Hotel.
Sheriff's patrols and the Snopacker's groomer clearing roads and checking vehicles along the roadway. Oakfield Chief Sean Downing noted that one convoy that started out on South Pearl in Oakfield during the height of the blizzard Saturday morning took five hours to reach the Indian Falls Fire Hall.
A Mercy EMS ambulance broke down in Oakfield at the start of the storm, stranding its medics, which turned out to be a blessing for the warming shelter at the Fire Hall, with trained medical personnel on hand during the storm event.
Josh Finn and K-9 Frankie in a search and rescue convoy. Finn and another medic joined the convoys so that if somebody needed medical attention, there was somebody on scene with the training to provide an evaluation.
Over the Christmas weekend, our community was ravaged by a historic blizzard that challenged locals with lake effect snow, strong wind and wind chills from -10 to -25 degrees.
Holiday travelers from near and far found their vehicles in ditches, snow banks or in the driveway of a stranger. Essential services provided by the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office, the Genesee County Emergency Dispatcher Center, Genesee County Emergency Management Services, and the Genesee County Highway Department were at the ready to ensure all travelers were protected and safe.
Genesee County Sheriff William A. Sheron, Jr. was incredibly grateful and proud.
“Thank God for the dedicated first responders of Genesee County," Sheron said. "Undoubtedly, dozens of lives were saved due to the heroic actions of all of our first responders who put their lives on the line during this historic blizzard of 2022. They worked around the clock, days on end, answering and responding to 9-1-1 calls to ensure that our community was safe and no one’s loved one became a statistic.”
Sheriff Sheron went on to say, “I am extremely proud of the men and women of the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office along with all Genesee County’s agencies and volunteer fire services. These are dedicated, passionate residents that give everything to their community. There’s truth to the saying, ‘When bad things happen, first responders are there, 24/7, through all types of weather and circumstances; no questions asked.’
"Should you see a first responder, please take the opportunity to thank them for their unwavering dedication," Sheron added. I would also like to thank all the community members that stepped up and provided safe warming shelters for hundreds of individuals that were stranded by the storm. To those businesses and individuals that dropped off food and bottled water, you provided much-needed supplies for our employees that hadn’t eaten in several hours. Thank you all!”
Tim Yaeger, Genesee County Emergency Management Services Coordinator, called attention to the importance of first responders in our community.
“It was an extremely stressful and dangerous event for the dispatchers, law enforcement, fire and Emergency Medical Services," Yaeger said. "The dispatchers had far more calls for help than available resources. Law enforcement and fire service would not give up or stop until every person was accounted for. They are all heroes in my book! They risked their lives for over 24 hours to rescue every person. Community leaders, individuals and business owners demonstrated generosity, blind trust and compassion by opening their homes, businesses, and warming shelters to ensure 700 travelers were out of harm’s way. Volunteer fire and EMS, church, and local businesses spent three days away from their families to care for complete strangers. The stories of compassion and dedication to never stop helping others in need of rescue is what makes the first responders of Genesee County our most cherished resource.”
Genesee County Highway Superintendent Tim Hens was astonished by the heroism he experienced.
“I'm struck by the commitment, dedication, loyalty, and humanity of all of the rescuers," Hens said. "Whether paid professionals or volunteers, people literally putting their lives at risk over and over to save mostly people they've never met and will most likely never see again.
"It was frustrating to not make progress at times," he added, "getting turned back over and over by impassible roads, insurmountable drifts, but everyone was trying to make a difference. No one gave up, they just tried another route. People opened their houses. People opened their businesses. Everyone worked together even though it was confusing and stressful. ”
Genesee County Manager Matt Landers wanted to recognize the people of this community and county officials who helped navigate this storm.
“There are so many people to thank from the community that stepped under difficult circumstances to save lives," Landers said. "First, I want to recognize and thank Sheriff Sheron, Tim Yaeger and Tim Hens for their leadership during the storm. Each of their respective operations played critical roles throughout the storm, and the way in which all three operations worked together was impressive. Next, I want to thank all of the law enforcement professionals, first responders, dispatchers, volunteer firefighters and snow plow operators that all worked tirelessly to save lives.”
He went on to say, “Thank you to all of the local and surrounding municipalities that helped with resources, equipment and manpower, including the City of Batavia, Orleans County and Livingston County. While there are so many people that stepped up to help, it’s impossible to list them all by name. However, I want to give a special shout-out to Nate Fix, Tony Johnston and members of the Genesee SnoPackers organization that came out with their ‘Tucker’ vehicle, which proved to be instrumental in saving lives by reaching people that other vehicles couldn’t get to.
"Thank you to the volunteers at the various warming shelters," he added, "the people who opened up their homes to strangers and the people that opened up their kitchens and cupboards with donated food for those stranded. While this storm will be remembered for the impressive winds and snowfall, I will always remember this storm by the bravery exhibited and the community coming together to care for one another. I am so proud to say I am from Genesee County!”
Shelley Stein, Chair of the Genesee County Legislature, could not be more thankful for her community.
“Bravery, courage, dedication, and compassion - all characteristics demonstrated by our community members, volunteers, and leaders during this past weekend," Stein said. "Genesee County is well known for our cooperative spirit and creativity in getting the work accomplished together. Our community, once again, jumped into action and shared their skills and talents to save lives and provide comfort to many. Our volunteer fire service members are our backbone of public safety in events like Storm Elliott. Untold hours, risks, and determination prevented deaths in our county. THANK YOU, simple and sincere from a grateful Genesee County Community.”
People that Matt and Melissa Landers reached out to that donated food:
Slow cooker full goulash
Full baked ham and tray of scalloped potatoes, and loaf of bread
Emily and Greg Branche
Tray of pasta
Beef vegetable soup and grilled cheese sandwiches
Mike and Sharon Burns
4 cases of water
Baked goods and other food
Dish of pasta
Jim and Nickie Fazio
Kristina and Aaron Clark
Ham and pasta
Mac and Cheese
Bags of various ready to eat foods and soda
Two bowls of hot food
Cindy and Ron Konieczny
Sheet pizzas sent to Dispatch from Batavia's Original
Sent a pizza and pop to fire department from Batavia's Original
Brian and Erika Mruczek
Sent a bunch of subs and fried dough to fire department from Batavia's Original
Sent a pizza and other food to fire department from Batavia's Original
Tray of pasta
John Spryopoulos (Settlers)
4 full pans of mac and cheese, 2 full pans of alfredo, 3 pans of salad, 2 ranch, 2 blue cheese, 2 half pans of rice, 2 half pans of beef tips, 2 half pans of chicken and biscuits and 2 half pnas of jambalaya
Matt & Melissa Landers
LOL, we were supposed to travel for holidays so we didn't have much to cook, so we gave 2 12 packs of lipton green tea. Melissa was handling the calls, Katie Landers was my sidekick and we spent our time driving around
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.”
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.
This is a story that should be told in black and white, like an old Hollywood screen gem about a Christmas miracle, the small town banding together against adverse conditions, saving a bunch of strangers from some dread uncertain fate as the winds howled and the snow blew on a moonless night.
But you won't find this story on Turner Classic Movies.
This story doesn't star Jimmy Stewart.
This is the story of the Town of Alabama responding to an unexpected crisis caused by an epic storm, some unplanned turns prompted by current technology and a few broad assumptions travelers made about what to anticipate down the road.
The central characters are Joe Bradt, Brian Kotarski, Craig Alexander, and Bonnie Woodward, along with a supporting cast of rescue crews and of Alabama residents who donated blankets, air mattresses and toys to help about 140 people from all over North America who found themselves stranded in their small town during the most powerful blizzard to hit Western New York since 1977.
Our setting is a wood-framed, two-story building that has provided warmth, comfort, and perhaps a few libations to weary travelers for 182 years. That's why it's still called the Alabama Hotel.
That word hotel might explain why, when motorists found they could go no further in the midst of Winter Storm Elliott, they came to the intersection of Lewiston Road and Alleghany Road seeking shelter.
That's where they found Bradt willing to open the door to all who knocked.
"I would say that 80 percent of the people that walked through the front door, the first question was, 'Do you have any rooms around?' And I'm like, 'We're not really a hotel. We're a restaurant, but come in, let us feed you and let us keep you warm,'" Bradt said.
I'll Be Home for Christmas
Friday was supposed to be a regular work day for Bradt, Alabama Hotel owner Bonnie Woodward, and the rest of the staff, except that it would be the last day before closing for the week for Christmas and New Year's.
Bradt, the restaurant's general manager, got a call from Woodward as he drove to work on Friday morning. She wanted to discuss the forecast. She asked Bradt, "what are your thoughts?"
"I said, 'Man, I don't know. You know, last time, they weren't right about the forecast, but it doesn't sound like they're playing around.'"
For the safety of their employees, Woodward and Bradt decided to keep the doors closed on Friday and reopen as planned on Jan. 4, so Bradt continued on to work and proceed to secure the building and supplies for the planned closure.
When he was done, "I loaded up the Jeep with my Christmas dinner and Bonnie's Christmas dinner, which I was going to drop off at her house, and left here about 12:30. I didn't get a quarter mile up the road, and there was no visibility. The roads were completely covered, and there was already an accident right here.
"I immediately turned around and said the safest place I can be is here for now. You know, I'll just wait it out here. No sooner did I put the key in the back door and unlock the back door than people were knocking on the front door. That didn't stop for two days."
The weather outside was vicious. Heavy, lake-effect snow blown around by 35 mph winds with 70 mph gusts. The roads were no place for anybody in any type of vehicle, let alone people unfamiliar with the area in sedans, minivans and luxury SUVs.
But when the Thruway authority decided to close the I-90 with no plan to direct travelers to safe routes, and Google and Apple proving incapable of warning drivers of hazardous conditions ahead, drivers who plotted Canada into their smartphones did what Siri or Googlebot told them to do: hop on Route 63 or Route 77 and head toward Niagara County. Right into the worst of the blizzard.
They didn't get far.
Buffeted by high winds and snow moving vertically across their windshields, drivers couldn't see the end of their hoods, let alone the roadway, and motorists became stranded up and down the state highways (if this were a black and white movie, we would mention "hood ornament" and cut to a shiny chrome object weaving through a field of white while trombones honk ominous tones).
Some made it on their own as far as Lewiston and Alleghany. Others were brought there by rescue teams or area residents. All of them were a lot better off sheltered from the elements with hot meals and warm blankets.
Shortly after Bradt opened the doors to all who showed up on the restaurant's front porch, he was joined by Brian Kotarski, who lives just a bit more than a mile down the road but thought that as long as his wife and small children had power, they were safe, and he wouldn't necessarily be safe if he tried to make it home, and his friend Joe and all these people at the Alabama Hotel needed help.
Kotarski has no training in the hospitality industry. None. Nada. He owns a construction company.
"I've never cooked," Kotarski said. "Never. I've always been on the other side of the bar or in the dining room. It was definitely a new experience, you know, cooking on the grill and serving at the bar. You know, I've never done that before."
But he quickly became Bradt's right-hand man.
They were joined by Craig Alexander, the co-owner of Holly Farms, the small grocery store across the street famous for its meat counter.
For the next 48 hours, the three of them led the effort to keep all of the unexpected visitors well nourished.
Bradt said they started off with a buffet of chicken and biscuits because that was something that could be put out quickly and was an easy self-serve meal, giving them time to plan their next move.
They made chili for dinner, another easy meal.
"We didn't sleep over that whole 48 hours," Bradt said. "When everybody settled down that first night, we dimmed the lights at probably 11 o'clock and Brian and I walked in the kitchen and were like, 'hey, what's next?' And next is breakfast. And we're like, what do we have? So we started going through the freezer. We pulled 20 pounds of bacon, 20 pounds of sausage, Brian stood over the grill and made 350 pancakes. When these guys got up between six and seven, we had the buffet set up."
There was no worry about supplies, Bradt said. Not only was the restaurant well stocked, but with Alexander's help, there was a ready pantry of meal ingredients less than 50 yards away.
"He didn't even think twice," Bradt said. "Like, 'what are we going to eat next?' 'Roast beef.' 'I'll be right back,' and he goes next door and comes back with 40 pounds of roast beef. Those guys were a godsend to us."
Alexander is on the quiet side, and when interviewed, he said he was happy to help and "it was a fine Christmas."
It's a Wonderful Life
Everybody that made it to Alabama Hotel signed in so there would be a record of who was safe in case somebody wanted to go looking for them. Looking at that list, Bradt notes, "there are people from Canada, New Jersey, Niagara Falls, LA, Toronto, Ohio, Delaware; there's a few from Shelby and Oakfield and Lancaster, but 75 percent of the people that were here were from out of the state."
There was never a thought about charging these travelers for lodging, such as it was, or food.
Bradt doesn't have an exact estimate of how much serving all those people, all that food, cost the restaurant. He's told national media outlets -- yes, the Alabama Hotel's Christmas hospitality has become national news -- it cost about $5,000. He said the price is somewhere between $4,000 and $6,000. But who's counting?
The lodging consisted of people pulling chairs together to sleep on, or sleeping on the floor or finding space upstairs. Families with kids got the somewhat remodeled rooms upstairs, including the ones with a couple of couches.
Blankets and air mattresses came courtesy of a few of the residents in the hamlet.
"One lady down the street, she put on her snowsuit, she grabbed two sleds out of her garage, and she strapped totes and bags of blankets and air mattresses to them," Bradt said. "She literally came with flashlights on her forehead, trudging through the blizzard right up to our front door and was like, 'Here's some supplies.' That continued on for the whole two days. Just random people walking here with supplies."
When travelers didn't have blankets, they grabbed eight-foot long table cloths.
"I've never seen so many people from so many different nationalities in one place," Bradt said. "And all they cared about was each other. There was no politics. There was no arguing. There was no fighting. It was just, 'how do I help the person next to me?'"
Kotarski added, "It's pretty humbling to have that many people, no arguments. If somebody needs something, somebody figured it out."
There were two Canadian families with teenagers who became the bus and wait staff.
"They pitched in as if they knew me and Joe forever," Kotarski said. "They were washing dishes, cleaning up out here. I mean, there was one burden we didn't have to worry about. They catered to everybody. They made coffee the whole time, tea the whole time."
Bradt interjected, "The only time they came to us was to ask, 'where is this? Where is more toilet paper? Where is more coffee?'"
If you've followed the story this far, you may have noticed the meals being prepared were pretty heavy on meat -- chicken and beef. That's our next plot complication. In a group of travelers, not everybody is going to eat animals.
That soon became another problem that solved itself.
"Somebody came up and said, 'We're from Canada, and we're Indian, and we are vegetarians,' Bradt said. "And I'm like, I am not a chef. I'm not sure what to make. So we opened the salad bar. They're saying, 'Hey, what do you have for vegetarian options? And I said, 'What I have is I have a lot of ingredients.' And they were like, 'do you mind if we come back there and cook?' It was absolutely mindblowing. Mindblowing."
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus
When Christmas Eve rolled around, Bradt mentioned to an Alabama resident that they had 10 kids in the group. Pretty soon, people were showing up with wrapped presents, wrapped toys, so the kids would have something to open on Christmas morning.
Woodward didn't venture from her home during the storm, but Bradt stayed in contact and let her know what was going on, and on Christmas Eve, he wondered what he should do for their patrons.
"I called her at about 4:30, and I said, 'Listen, we've served chicken and biscuits. We've served chili. We've served pizza. We've served wings, breakfasts, roast beef, I mean, you name it, we served it.' I said, 'Well, how do we make Christmas Eve special for 115 people that are here together? And she said, 'I want you to walk out to our walk-in cooler and I want you to take out the 60 pounds of prime rib that is in there. I want you to make a prime rib dinner.'"
So that's what Bradt did.
"We didn't just make prime rib and throw it out there," Bradt said. "We made it special. We served them. I stood right there at the end of the table and carved the prime rib as each person came up, and the first thing they did was stop and take a photograph. Everything we did, there was clapping and excitement, and we just really made the best of it, you know, absolutely made the best of it. It's definitely a Christmas that none of us -- that none of them -- will ever forget."
At about 3:30 in the morning on Christmas Day, Bradt ventured out and could see things were starting to clear up, and he knew that pretty soon it would be time for him and all these people who had bonded over meals at the Alabama Hotel to head home.
In the morning, Bradt started giving people a ride in his Jeep to the travel center, to Oakfield-Alabama, to side roads, wherever their cars were parked. When he dropped them off, they would try to stuff money in his pockets. He would refuse but they would persist.
"I got home and started talking to my family, and I was like, 'oh, yeah,' so I started emptying my pockets out onto the dining room table."
He counted $1,700.
There was another $300 left in the restaurant's tip jar.
"I called Bonnie, and I'm like, 'this isn't my money,' Bradt said. "This money is coming back to the restaurant, and we're gonna find a way to use it. On the way here today, I was thinking, 'You know what, maybe we use some of that money to go out and buy 100 blankets, you know, and set up upstairs so we can be prepared.' Hopefully, we never need them."
Then his thought shifted.
"It's been a very, very humbling, very humbling experience. These are the times when you figure out who your friends are and who's got your back."
And that's how the story ends, it seems, with more than 100 holiday travelers who passed through a small town in Upstate New York on Friday and Saturday to find out that total strangers can be their friends just when they might need them the most.
Photos: Inset photo of Joe Bradt and Brian Kotarski by Howard Owens. All other photos courtesy of Alabama Hotel.
A message left on a social media post by Alabama Hotel.
The Batavian was out in Oakfield and Alabama today for follow-up stories for Winter Storm Elliott (watch for more coverage over the next day or so) and we stopped a few times for storm-related photos along Judge Road (Route 63).
Above, a snow-covered residence at Judge and Wight roads, Alabama.
The Buffalo Bills made it back safe and sound after the team's victorious trip to defeat the Chicago Bears 35 to 13 Saturday. However, with Thruway closures, the team apparently took a slight detour down Route 5 in the city, Manager Rachael Tabelski said.
As a result, some local fans decided to celebrate the win as a bus parade drove past City Hall on Sunday. Fire engines blared horns at the passing entourage traveling west from Rochester.
The City of Batavia Fire Department came out on a subzero Christmas morning to make sure the Buffalo Bills felt the love from Batavia!" Tabelski said. "We believe they had to travel through Batavia because the 90 was still closed."
Firefighters were also busy helping out at the city fire station. The state's Department of Homeland Security had delivered 14 pallets of supplies that were awaiting distribution to 11 warming shelters throughout Genesee County. The shelters were opened after Winter Storm Elliott crashed into the western county area and swamped motorists and rescue vehicles with blinding snow and wind.
Top Photo: City of Batavia firefighters park an engine next to City Hall Sunday to greet the Buffalo Bills as they pass through downtown en route to Buffalo; 14 pallets of supplies rest at the city fire station before getting distributed to area warming shelters after a hard hit by Winter Storm Elliott this weekend. Photos submitted by the City of Batavia.