By Susan Stevens
This blog has been publishing Jason Sibert’s series on sewer socialism — municipal leaders utilizing taxpayer funds to support good infrastructure and create a happier, healthier and more sustainable situation for their citizens. The recent blizzard which covered Buffalo and nearby cities over Christmas, and has thus far claimed over three dozen lives, is a heart-wrenching example of why sewer socialists are the very best type of leader — of why the Hope of Mankind is often shining where we least want to look for it, in the tedium of keeping up the plumbing of our lives by mending a little hole now so it doesn’t become a bigger, more expensive and dangerous hole later. I spoke to Buffalo-are resident and comrade, SDUSA Vice Chair Michael Mottern, to fill us in on what this treacherous blizzard has been like. Michael lives in government housing near Buffalo, in a neighboring city where the leaders have done a much better job prioritizing winter storm readiness.
Susan: Can you describe the moment when you first realized you were in for some really severe weather?
Michael: When the fifth person told me that it was coming and we should look out, because it was like nothing we’d ever heard of from the National Weather Service before. I didn’t think it would be that severe of a storm, but when the fifth person told me, I said, “Okay, let me not go anywhere, and really quickly, I’ll run to the store near my house.” I’m not in a food desert if you count the convenience store and the Rite Aid right across the street. You can get enough food there if you’re just willing to pay more.
Susan: Some workers were begging Erie County to announce a travel ban much sooner than they did, as their employers did not care about travel advisories and would only let them stay home from work on Friday if there was an all-out ban. The County waited and put the ban in place at 9:30 Friday morning, after many workers were already on the road; many of them ended up being trapped in their cars. https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2022/12/27/buffalo-storm-blizzard-warnings/?fbclid=IwAR0vgTonzTrF_ex-7n8ByT-XjvGtsUDi_4e3MEdrlQYqBys0d3Z1VVYJnxw
What made it possible for you to shelter safely in your home until the travel ban was lifted?
Michael: I live in a fairly modern public housing complex, and the electricity did not go off at all. As soon as my friend left for the day, I made myself a good dinner — but the snow came down early, and I watched a pure white out for three days, and was able to call my family because my cell service and electricity were fine. And I’m pretty sure my building, built in the late 1960s or early 1970s, is retrofitted with emergency generators that will kick on after the power in the building goes off, but that never happened.
Susan: What was the weather like from your perspective?
Michael: Warm at first, but the temperature dipped and that’s when the snow came. Out my window, I saw white out conditions not even five feet in front of my face where I normally get a nice view of the park and the houses in front of it. It was severe white out for several days, until finally it went on Christmas Eve by 11:00 PM, and then the snow was steadily coming down on Christmas day, but not as severe as Christmas Eve.
I was able to step out of the house briefly on Christmas Eve at 12:00 AM, after I put on my full hunting gear, and take out my trash. The snow was waist high.
Susan: Can you share about your experiences with your neighbors while you were all snowed in over Christmas?
Michael: My neighbor from upstairs came over Christmas Eve, and I cooked boiled beef over scrambled eggs for her, because she didn’t want the venison roast with potato wedges that I was making for myself. It was humbling making WWI food for my neighbor considering that it was Christmas Eve, the birthday of Jesus Christ. On Christmas Day, I made myself another venison roast and ate it with raw carrots.
I still have a freezer full of meat because of the deer I shot earlier this month while out hunting with my father in Lancaster on a friend’s land. Since the blizzard, I’ve just occasionally been going to the store for milk and bread.
Susan: How’s the situation with your apartment building different from that of the housing situation in the older and poorer part of Buffalo?
Michael: It’s much better in my municipality — Kenmore/Town of Tonawanda — because the infrastructure is a little bit better and newer, and it has its own plow service, but that did not stop the plows from getting stuck on my street.
Susan: What do you know of the experiences of your fellow-Buffalonians attempting to survive the blizzard in buildings with poor infrastructure?
Michael: Two people — a mother and her teenaged son — who were in a more modern structure got caught because the ground floor was below the parking lot, and the area all around it filled in with snow, and the power went out. She was very smart and hung a red towel over the top of the door and then closed it, so that when rescuers did come after the snow started to melt, they would see the towel and know that somebody was in there. Then they hunkered down with a lot of blankets, and waited. She called 911 and they told her no service was available yet; she got no response when she called her property management for help. The first person who got to her was 7 News reporter Michael Schwartz, nearly a week after the blizzard started. https://www.wkbw.com/news/local-news/blizzard-of-22/buffalo-woman-gets-path-from-basement-apartment-after-trapped-for-five-days
Myles Carter, our former SDUSA-endorsed Sheriff candidate, and his friend, local activist David Louis made national news on Good Morning America by helping an elderly woman who’d lost power get to her daughter’s home, before she became a victim of the elements. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAk8TkrCnF8
Some people became so desperate to find a warm place when their power went out, that they went out in their cars and then were blinded and stopped by the whiteout, and either froze to death, or some died from carbon monoxide poisoning because they kept their cars and heaters running, and the snow quickly covered their exhaust pipes.
Susan: What’s the relationship between the political representation that citizens get in Buffalo, Tonawanda, North Tonawanda and any other nearby cities you think of, and how prepared these cities’ infrastructure and services were to protect people during the blizzard?
Michael: I’ve learned through national and local news articles, and from Buffalo meteorologist Don Paul — Channel 4 — that Buffalo doesn’t have the plow team that it should have — primarily, in my opinion, because of property tax caps, and lack of spending on infrastructure and good municipal equipment. Tonawanda is not only smaller: it also has a stronger tax base, whereas Buffalo covers more area, has more narrow, winding streets that a plow can get stuck on, and has a median income of only $39,000 a year. For several years, Buffalo has been among the top four poorest cities in America.
Susan: While we were talking the other day, you said that Buffalo received state and federal funding that could be used to update infrastructure — or maybe was even designated for that purpose? — but elected officials wanted to appear conservative with regard to spending. Yet we’ve learned from Jason Sibert’s articles on sewer socialism here at the blog that socialist leaders who put people first are great for city budgets. How can this be?
Michael: There’s a lot of public money that flows through Buffalo, but a lot of it is so mismanaged that all that money doesn’t mean that they can get a bigger plow team. Leaders are more focused on pleasing rich developers and funding microcosm projects.
Susan: Please share anything else you’d like that I didn’t think to ask about.
Michael: I think a lot of city residents are really brave to ignore these travel bans in order to rescue people. However, they should also remember not to take their car out in a snowstorm.
In the summer and fall of 2021, SDUSA endorsed and campaigned for young socialist Buffalo Mayoral candidate India Walton, who defeated longtime incumbent Byron Brown in the Democratic Primary. https://socialistcurrents.org/?p=3743 Brown, however, staged an aggressive write-in campaign, well-funded by his big-money donors, and won the general election in November. Should Walton run a second time, perhaps her vision for getting resources to the people and neighborhoods most in need of them will resonate with an even greater number of Buffalonians who struggled to keep warm and stay alive during this blizzard in outdated buildings.
Susan Stevens is the Chair of Kansas City, Kansas SDUSA.