Attorney General James Calls on National Weather Service to Send Cell Phone Alerts for Severe Winter Storms

Cell Phone Alerts Were Not Sent Ahead of Deadly December 2022 Buffalo Blizzard

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James today called on the National Weather Service (NWS) to send Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) warning the public about severe winter weather events, such as major blizzards, ice storms, and other dangerous conditions. The NWS currently sends regionalized WEAs to cell phones for other kinds of extreme weather, but not for winter storms. Citing the deadly impacts of the December 2022 Buffalo blizzard, during which 47 New Yorkers lost their lives, Attorney General James urges NWS to change its policy to issue severe winter weather alerts. 

“A wireless emergency alert can be the difference between life and death,” said Attorney General James. “Multiple reports issued in the aftermath of last December’s devastating blizzard in the Buffalo area agree that better, earlier communication with the public about the storm could have saved lives. I urge the National Weather Service to immediately expand Wireless Emergency Alerts to include severe winter storms so New Yorkers have access to the information they need to protect themselves, their families, and their loved ones.” 

The Buffalo blizzard pummeled Western New York from December 23 through December 27, 2022. On December 21, 2022, NWS’s Buffalo Weather Forecast Office predicted that a “once in a generation” storm would bring “damaging winds of 60 to 70 mph,” “paralyzing heavy lake effect snow,” and a “rapid flash freeze,” but NWS did not send WEAs about these hazards to New Yorkers before or during the storm. The Buffalo-Niagara area sustained 37 consecutive hours of unrelenting blizzard conditions and 70 mph winds, causing the deaths of 47 people. Nearly half of them were outside or in their cars when they lost their lives. 

WEAs are part of a national system through which NWS, and participating state and local public safety and emergency management agencies, can send emergency text messages through mobile phone carriers. As opposed to most other emergency communication systems, individuals do not need to opt in or sign up to receive WEAs, as alerts are sent automatically to cell phones in the affected area during an emergency. WEAs have been the primary national alerting method for more than a decade and are especially critical during widespread power outages, when people cannot get updates on television or radio. 

In the letter sent today, Attorney General James argues that if WEAs had been sent to Western New York residents, the extensive loss of life and associated community impacts caused by the blizzard could have been mitigated. For example, WEAs warning of the forecasted severity of the upcoming blizzard likely would have prompted people to take more preparatory measures, such as stocking up on groceries and moving elderly or disabled family members. With advance warning, individuals may have also taken more protective measures once the blizzard hit, such as remaining indoors and staying off the roads.  

Acknowledging that WEAs cannot single-handedly prepare an entire region for severe weather, Attorney General James suggests that NWS should coordinate with local emergency management authorities to develop strategies for reaching vulnerable individuals and communities, including those with limited English proficiency. Attorney General James also encourages NWS field offices, like the Buffalo Weather Forecast Office, to work more closely with local leaders of civic organizations and houses of worship, who can ensure emergency warnings reach as many people as possible. Finally, Attorney General James requests that NWS conduct a comprehensive assessment of the 2022 Buffalo blizzard, including a review of its own public messaging efforts, just as NWS has done for other extreme weather events nationwide. 

Attorney General James has been a national leader in urging the federal government to improve severe weather emergency alerts. In March 2022, citing the deadly aftermath of Hurricane Ida in New York City, which disproportionately affected immigrants from Asia with limited English proficiency, Attorney General James sent a letter to NWS calling for increased language accessibility. As a follow up, in October 2022, Attorney General James sent a letter to FCC’s Chair and the wireless industry urging them to work together to swiftly expand language accessibility for severe weather alerts. Most recently, Attorney General James led a coalition of 16 attorneys general and the City of New York in support of FCC’s efforts to expand access to lifesaving alerts for extreme weather events

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorney General Max Shterngel, Senior Counsel Timothy Hoffman, Environmental Scientist Jennifer Nalbone, and Program Assistant Isabel Murphy, all of the Environmental Protection Bureau, under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Lisa Burianek. The Environmental Protection Bureau is led by Bureau Chief Lemuel M. Srolovic and is a part of the Division for Social Justice, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux and overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.