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Buffalo's snowbound residents turn to a Facebook group for help from their neighbors

Buffalo, N.Y., residents dig out after a historic and catastrophic blizzard.
Jeffrey T. Barnes
/
AP
Buffalo, N.Y., residents dig out after a historic and catastrophic blizzard.

Scrolling through the private Facebook group "Buffalo Blizzard 2022," it's immediately apparent that while the snow may have stopped falling, residents of the western New York city are still in desperate need.

"Hi ... I have been without hot water for 5 days now. ... It's a gas hot water tank and I can't get it to light. ... Plz helpppp ..." pleads one post.

"I need help digging out," begs another member.

Many posts ask for groceries, especially baby formula and diapers. Others are seeking rides to dialysis appointments — a service that the county says it is providing to people who call a blizzard assistance hotline number. A citywide driving ban, which was in place for 6 days, made it illegal for people to try to drive to a grocery store or pharmacy, forcing neighbors to turn to each other to get by in the storm and immediate aftermath. And for as many people who are asking for help, there are those offering assistance.

"Anyone need a driveway cleared still?" one person volunteers. Someone else posts a link to a long list of towed cars. Another poster flags a few open restaurants that are donating meals, and encourages everyone to add to the list.

"This is an instrumental tool that allows us to talk to each other in real time and get each other help," explains Mark Johnson, a Buffalo resident whose offer of supplies and rides has more than 180 replies.

Johnson has been driving around the city, illegally, for two days before the driving ban lifted. He says he's been stopped by police three times, and issued two tickets.

"Unless they're going to impound my car, I'm just gonna keep racking up these tickets," Johnson says by phone from the parking lot of Kensington Pizza on Wednesday, where he's cramming more supplies (and hot pizzas) into an SUV already packed to the ceiling with donations to deliver.

"It's like tag, you're it," explains Johnson, who says he feels a duty to take on this task. "It's not about, 'Oh, I hope somebody helps out,' because you're the hope that was sent!"

"Buffalo Blizzards 2022" now has more than 70,000 active members. Its admin, Erin Aquilina, started the page after a 2014 blizzard that also slammed the city with 4 feet of snow. For this latest snowstorm, she says membership skyrocketed, with at least 46,000 new members joining since Friday.

"While there's no confirmed number of people that were assisted by this group, it is fair to say that hundreds to thousands of people relied on the information being communicated," says Aquilina in a Facebook message to NPR.

Aquilina, and the group's four other administrators, have been working long hours through the blizzard and power outages, using up cell data and phone batteries to approve every one of the more than 5,000 posts, filtering out disinformation and highlighting urgent alerts about missing people.

And the pace isn't slowing down now that the storm has passed — the timing of the weather meant a missed payday, so some people can't afford to buy supplies and are relying on donations coordinated through the group.

"Buffalo is the 'City of Good Neighbors,' " says Aquilina, "and if you took some time to read through these posts, you would see countless members of the community stepping up to help each other."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Liz Baker
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