Hochul: ‘For the rest of our lives, we'll be grateful to all the firefighters and the snowmobile clubs and the citizens and the emergency personnel and the police and elected leaders and just the food banks – everybody who showed me that my pride in this community is so justified’
On Saturday, Gov. Kathy Hochul recognized first responders and community heroes in Buffalo for their actions during the December blizzard.
She said, in part, “You know, there's a part of this community that's celebrating what will be an extraordinary event tomorrow (the Buffalo Bills game). I stopped in some diners. Everybody's dressed in their Bills clothes. Nobody does it finer than our mayor, but the backdrop to all that excitement and the energy is also a call to all of us to not forget. Not forget the people we lost. I'm sure many of them were Buffalo Bills fans who would've enjoyed this experience, who on one of the most holy, beautiful holidays, holy days of the year, we lost some really good people from our community. So, it's a somber experience today and beyond, because we are all called to never forget the individual lives that were lost in that tragedy that Mother Nature just unleashed, which such fury. It was unbelievable.
“Those of us who old enough to have lived through the Blizzard of '77 and other blizzards just thought we'd seen it all. But we are wrong. We are pushed, we are challenged. And the people in this room representing so many others, you rose up and the ordinary citizens who found the strength and the courage that we ask God for. Because of your efforts, there are more of God's children still with us today, and that is what we also acknowledge, the loss, but also the life, the lives that were saved. … It's been a really tough year for my hometown.
“And you look across the country and you never want to be one of those cities that's listed when they talk about the mass shootings. It was never us. It was always somewhere else, somewhere else far away. We sent our prayers and our love across the nation to help communities heal. But on May 14th, we were on the receiving end of all that, as the world watched stunned that this could happen. A mass murder, a hate crime, so heinous, we lost the lives of 10 good people. Again, courage on display there. Courage of the people in the store and in the parking lots and individuals just going by – bystanders, trying to save lives. The urgency, the fear, were there others out there ready to attack them? But no one worried about themselves. In a true Buffalo way, we honor those lives always, but also the people who stepped up in this community and responded.
“And then you go through a kind of a tough storm in November, broke some records, 7 feet of snow. We went out and saw the damage to homes and businesses and livelihoods at a time when people should have been out and about experiencing getting ready for Thanksgiving. Heroes were there again. And as if they weren't exhausted enough, the same people, the same communities, the same first responders, the same firefighters, the same National Guard, the same State Police, the same county and city and local snowplow drivers and forklift drivers and DOT members and everybody else – you had to do it all over again. …
“And this time, we had reinforcements from a community that just did extraordinary things. Again, ordinary citizens, not ordinary in a bland sense, but just regular people, regular Buffalonians, Western New Yorkers. And throughout, not just Erie County, but Niagara and Genesee, Chautauqua, they showed what I brag about all over the state to the extent that people are tired of me talking about Buffalo. Sorry, rest of state. I love you, too; but this is my home. I know the heart of the people here. How tough we are, because we've seen a lot of good and we've seen some bad. Not just this year, but the history, losses, businesses, flight of our young people during a lot of the time when I was growing up. Factories shuttered. We have been through so much together as a community and yet there is no community or people stronger than right here in Buffalo, because we have been tested. We've been tested by fire, we've been tested by snow, we've been tested by blizzards and winds that were just unbelievable – record-setting in every measure.
“So, I saw resilience, camaraderie. The ‘City of Good Neighbors,’ being so much more than a slogan, but it was also the region of good neighbors. It was not just a city, it's what we did in the neighboring towns and suburbs. So, this will go down in the history books. I can go through all the statistics. Thirty-seven hours of blizzard – meaning blinding, dangerous conditions. The longest sustained blizzard in the continental U.S. for any place under 5,000 feet. I never heard of that statistic before. It's kind of interesting. Put that one in the books. Twice as long as the next-closest blizzard in a place known for blizzards, Buffalo, New York.
“You know, the prior blizzard had been recorded at the airport, it was 16 hours. Skyway – I look out my window where I live right in downtown Buffalo, almost hit 80 miles an hour. Surprised the structure stood up itself.
“But the statistics don't tell the story. The images that went viral around the world, the disbelief of people seeing the amount of snow piled up in front of houses, in front of substations that are supposed to give us the power to warm our homes, make that Christmas Eve dinner, the Christmas Day dinner, was gone for so many. Our power was out for many, many days. Flooding, still without heat – trying to get that fixed.
“So, we were just one small example of what I know really hit this community so hard. Walls of ice, houses in covering, in ice that you couldn't even break through. But those images pale in comparison to the human story. Those are the physical effects. We all saw it. I mean, in disbelief. You could not see out your window for so long. I was here.
“But the human toll – I went to the Buffalo Police garage the day after Christmas. I just wanted to look in the eyes of people from all over. This was a gathering point for other law enforcement who told me about the pain they felt. These guys are tough. They don't really want to talk about it, but I asked them. I said, ‘That had to be really hard going into homes and vehicles and trying so hard to break through the storm. And some people didn't make it.’ And I told them, I said, ‘I know this takes a toll on you. How can it not? You're a human being for God's sake, but please focus on just so many more you saved. Don't forget that.’
“There are people here today whose lives were saved. There's a baby in the front row. You're going to meet little Ellen, who is alive today because of the courage of the people in this room. And those of you represent citizens also, those who are trained. So, we've had a lot of tragedy. We've overcome so much.
“Today, we'll focus on heroism and what that means. What does it mean to be a hero? It means knocked down and get up. There are people like our friend from the Buffalo Bills, and we have Steve Tasker to represent their incredible story, the glory years that are back. But Damar Hamlin; I had a chance to speak to him the other day, and he spoke about something that I was so touched by. I said, ‘You know, people all over this world, all over the City of (Buffalo,).’ I said, ‘You're a household name, even in New York City.’ He was so surprised by that. I said, ‘Your story is so powerful of what prayer has done, but your fighting spirit.’ And we talked about how we can use his story to go into places, you know, inner cities where a lot of kids have given up hope, and talk about being a fighter, overcoming the odds, literally coming back to life.
“That also is the story of what happened during this blizzard. The desire to just stay alive and fight for people to also save their lives. The power of prayer as we prayed for God to just deliver us from what was going on, and help us find more people. So, we talk about those, again, we lost, but the stories of those citizens who did the extraordinary, shared their homes, put themselves in danger, shared a meal.
“There's so many stories, and they've been in the news, but you know, you think about people like Jay Withey, known as ‘Merry Christmas Jay.’ That's a great thing to have associated with you, ‘Merry Christmas Jay,’ because people ask, ‘What does that mean?’ It's a mechanic who rescued 24 people from their cars when others couldn't get through and shelter them in a school. That's what I'm talking about when I talk about the everyday heroes who could just taken care of themselves, said, ‘I can't go out there, it's cold. Something could happen to me.’ That was all pushed aside.
“Sha'Kyra Aughtry, who jumped in action when she heard a stranded man cry for help outside her house. It was safer and warmer in her house. I'm not sure if your power was on, but I guarantee you it was warmer than it was out in that street. But she listened to the voice calling her. She felt it. She thought, ‘What else could I do? I had to respond.’ That's an everyday hero. She used a blow dryer to melt off his frostbite. She cared for him for hours until the first responders came.
“Craig Elston, the owner of C&C Cuts, who kept his barbershop open during the worst of the storm, probably wanting to go home, probably wanting to check in on the family, but he stayed there so people could be warm, becoming a beacon of light for the community.
“Or heroes like the Buffalo-Niagara Airport police and firefighters. Assistant Fire Chief Joel Eberth. Mark Wolhfiel, Brian Patterson, Louis Lubert, Richard Russo. They alone rescued 42 people from their vehicles and brought them to the warmth of the airport firehouse. And then they made sure Santa was there to help bring some gifts to a young family so they could open gifts on Christmas, never forgetting there's little kids who don't know why Santa didn't come. Someday their parents will tell them, but tell them Santa's going to be there next year.
“These are just some of the stories. And I was luckily in a hotel we could find because my house is not in a condition, with broken pipes and flooding, to be in. But I think about the people even in hotels, restaurants who wanted to go home on Thursday, but were still working.
“Just a couple of people – cooking for hundreds of stranded people who should have been able to fly out of the airport – were still there by Tuesday, exhausted, trying to feed people anything they could. And I want to also recognize … state government teams who came here. I saw a statistic they had 650 saves, and I said, ‘What – that sounds kind of cold. What is a save?’ Six-hundred-and-fifty lives that were saved during the heat of the storm or the cold of the storm by just the state workers who came in.
“And I'm talking about snowplow drivers from the DOT. I'm talking about State Police officers and National Guard and (State) Parks workers, and you know, the crews, the medical support. Extraordinary. Six-hundred-and-fifty people because of that effort alone, can watch that football game tomorrow and cheer on the Bills and think about the next Christmas and how it's going to be better. That's what I want the people in this room to share with the people who are out there, who are dealing with, I'm sure, something of remorse for the lives they couldn't save. I want you to know that, just from the state effort alone, and there's thousands of other stories, 650 people are still walking God's Earth. So, please remember that. Please remember that.
“And I went to the National Guard, the Armory, had to plow our way through. I saw a lot of empty cots. I mean they're all empty. They should have been taking a break. They've been out there for 24 hours; it was time to take a break. And they were not there. They're still out in the streets just trying to get people out there, bringing medical workers to ECMC and hospitals, trying to get people to dialysis. If they had missed their dialysis appointment, they might not have been with us. So many stories.
“I do want to do a shout-out to the organizations from the state and thank the Department of Transportation for prepositioning hundreds and hundreds of personnel and plows before the storm even hit, before the first snows came, you were here on the ground. Marie Therese Dominguez, our commissioner of DOT. … Our Office of Emergency Management, police and fire. … Thruway Authority, Department of Environmental Conservation, Office of Parks, Office of Mental Health, People with Disabilities, and my God, our State Police, Steve Nigrelli. It's nothing like someone from Hamburg run your State Police during the blizzard, Steve Nigrelli.
“And Jackie Bray. … Thank you for all the work that you have done. So, our health care workers, nurses, county agencies, I could go on forever and ever. You can tell this is something that, while little time has passed, I want people just to settle in, but also know that, for the rest of our lives, we'll be grateful to all the firefighters and the snowmobile clubs and the citizens and the emergency personnel and the police and elected leaders and just the food banks – everybody who showed me that my pride in this community is so justified.
“This is an extraordinary community. You rose up, showed up when others hunkered down. You were there, Western New York. And I'm so proud to be your governor. …
“And also, the utility crews. I was on the phone nonstop with utility crews. We pre-positioned … 7,000 utility crews ready to turn on the power as soon as they could get access. The stories of them walking an hour in the cold trying to break into a station that was frozen solid, so they could bring lifesaving heat and warmth to people. And they were so frustrated they couldn't get through the ice. They felt the pain, too. I honor them. I honor them. …
“There's lessons to be learned from this. We'll always do better the next time based on the experiences. Without a doubt, we're going to have an after-action report. We're going to have outside consultants give us advice because, in life, we can always do better in everything we do.
“There will be more storms. Mother Nature has had a really bad couple years with us. Those a hundred-year floods that happen in our creeks, in our lake seem to be happening every couple of years now. … New York has had a lot of effects, but all I know is that, whatever Mother Nature brings – and maybe we can get her to calm down one of these days, show some mercy on us – we'll be ready. The lessons from this storm, but also the stories that we want to repeat again from this storm. And that is to know that we have the reinforcements from an extraordinary community. No matter how many people we put on the ground, knowing that all of you are out there for us. So, you are the ambassadors for this region to the rest of the world. You showed what you're made of. Again, I'm humbled to represent the heroes – the every-day, and those who are trained in uniform – who saved so many lives. And again, those we lost in our hearts forever.
“But you did something extraordinary and, for that, I thank you.”