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High winds and rain sweep through WNY on first Code Blue night of the season

Western New York utilities are reporting some 15,000 customers without power Monday morning, after strong winds and heavy rain swept through the area Sunday. West Seneca Central Schools are also closed Monday because of the widespread outages.

NYSEG is working to restore power to about 11,000 customers, while National Grid is dealing with more than 4,600 outages. No estimates are available as to when power will be restored. Both utilities had additional crews standing by over the weekend due to the forecast for wind gusts that were forecast to top over 60 mph.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Buffalo Fire Commissioner Bill Renaldo provides a storm update Sunday evening.

Many parts of Buffalo were affected by the storm, including numerous downed trees, tree branches and street lights. City Forestry crews responded to more than 50 calls for downed tree branches and in about half of the calls, downed trees.

As of early Monday morning, there were five street lights that were brought down by winds. Seven traffic lights in various parts of the city are not operating. Police remind drivers to treat those intersections as four way stops.

Buffalo Fire Commissioner Bill Renaldo said the First Ward was, as usual, one of the hardest hit spots. Police and fire crews were going door to door in the First Ward for several hours Sunday, as high winds drove water from the Buffalo River into the streets.

"So far we have not had to evacuate anyone, but we've had three NFTA buses on standby in case we did have to evacuate anyone," Renaldo said. "There were 4-5 basements that were flooded, so we checked those out to make sure there weren't any hazards and no one needed to be evacuated. So that's good news."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
The Buffalo River rose to such heights it flooded area streets, hard-hitting Buffalo's First Ward.

There were scattered outages throughout the day on Sunday, as well, but by late Sunday night, much of that power had been restored. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state was ready to respond with trucks, dozers and other equipment as needed due to weather conditions across New York.

The storm came as Erie County's homeless had their first experience this season with the Code Blue process. It was complicated by strict limits on the number of people who can be in a particular shelter.

The usually busy Harbor House, on the edge of downtown Buffalo, is limited to seven people, far below what the shelter usually holds when cots are jammed together. The overall situation is being eased by the new shelter in the Lincoln Field House on Quincy Street, which can hold 32 people and was fairly full when visited Sunday night. That shelter is operated by the Restoration Society, long involved in the homeless issue.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Those in need take shelter on the season first Code Blue night.

Resource Navigator Sherry Jones said the society tries to provide an array of services for the homeless.

"Dinner, breakfast, a bed. We have other donations of clothing, hygiene products," Jones said. "Of course, we let them know about community resources. We offer our resources. Within my office, I let them know to come and see me and I help them with my housing assessment and our other services within Restoration Society."

That includes employment help. Often, that's not the problem for the homeless, since they have a job, just not a job that pays enough to establish a permanent residence. Jones said she has been homeless twice this year, as rents continue to skyrocket in Buffalo.

"We have a lot of people through no fault of their own, because they just did not have enough money to pay their rent. There's a variety of reasons people go homeless. There's a thin line between being homeless and being housed," Jones said.

Homeless Alliance Executive Director Dale Zuchlewski said there are parameters of who will be homeless.

"They're usually predominantly single, African American or Hispanic, maybe about 45-55," Zuchlewski said. "For families, it's a young mom, maybe in her 20s, with one or two, maybe three children."

Most homeless individuals in Erie County are in Buffalo, although the Rural Outreach Center in East Aurora houses some from more rural areas of the county.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.