BUFFALO—Mourners filling the True Bethel Baptist Church in East Buffalo on a cloudy Friday morning for the funeral of Morris Singer Jr. arrived in fur coats and hats, stone-embroidered jackets, and leopard print prints.
Reverend Darius Pridgen reminded the congregation that Mr. Singer, known for his colorful suits and flamboyant style, “was a happy person and enjoyed life.”
“Yes, it was,” replied a woman in the desk.
Among the church speakers came the soft voice of gospel singer William Becton: “No matter what’s going on, take courage. He will fix everything, but you have to stay strong.”
Mr. Singer’s friends and family raised their hands to the sky, waving and applauding.
Western New York is awash with almost unimaginable grief as it prepares to bury more than 40 victims of a disastrous snowstorm during Christmas week, most of them in Buffalo. Families, who are still trying to understand how a region that is used to the harsh winter weather, was caught so unprepared, will attend the funeral after the funeral in the coming days and seek solace in the victims.
Mr. Singer, 65, was found dead in a snowdrift. Others froze to death in their cars or homes or on snow-clogged sidewalks and were unable to move even short distances in white light conditions. Some died when emergency medical services were delayed. A person was poisoned by carbon monoxide accumulated in his home. The 3-year-old girl drowned in the pool of a hotel where her family took shelter. Just last week, the body of a victim was found inside a tent.
The December snowstorm brought whitening conditions to the Buffalo area. More than 40 people lost their lives. Credit… Brandon Watson for The New York Times
The grief only intensified in the days after the storm. Five young children died in a house fire on New Year’s Eve. Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin also suffered a heart attack on the eve of the New Year.
Black residents were particularly hard hit. In a community marked by discrimination and poverty, more than half of storm victims were Black, but Black residents only make up about 14 percent of Erie County’s population. The disaster came after 10 Black people were murdered by a racist gunman at a Tops supermarket in East Buffalo last spring. Many residents say the trauma of being shot has yet to subside.
“We really have no chance of recovery,” said Vivian Robinson, a Christian pastor at the City Department of Spirit of Truth. “When will we have that moment just to breathe?”
The striking details of December’s blizzard are well known by now: More than a meter of snow and days of blinding winds have left even rescuers stranded on unplowed roads as more than 1,000 emergency calls went unanswered in the storm’s early hours. But more than two weeks later, unbearable details continue to emerge.
His family believe that Mr. Singer walked home from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting at the height of the storm. He came within a block of his home on Broadway, but could not walk any further. “Christmas will never be the same again,” said his son, Morris Singer III.
Mrs. Robinson and her husband, Al, had welcomed the weak in their home to ride through the storm at the East Buffalo church where they were pastors. Their invitation, posted on Facebook, quickly attracted more than 130 desperate neighbors. “They were half frozen just trying to get here,” said Mr Robinson.
Denise Sweet’s family has survived the worst of the storm but will not soon forget the devastation. Days after the snowfall stopped, they scoured their neighborhoods to spot the damage. They saw 10 cars covered in yellow and bureaucracy, which showed which bodies had been exhumed and which still had bodies in them. His 14-year-old son, Simier, wondered if they knew any of the victims. “I haven’t really thought about what a wife can do to a human,” he said.
Roads in and around Buffalo are now cleared, the airport has reopened, schools have reopened. But stranded in collective despair, residents must grapple with how to comfort and support those who lost their families in the storm – a complex task with all the losses that have come before.
Especially in Buffalo’s Black community, residents spoke of the growing impact of this kind of relentless tragedy.
Ms. Sweet’s stepfather died from Covid-19 last January. “It started right there, and from then on, every month was horrible,” she said.
His family had a personal connection to one of the 10 victims shot at the Tops grocery store, and they were so scared for their safety that they wouldn’t go back to the store.
Garnell Whitfield Jr., who lost his mother, Ruth Whitfield, in the massacre, said that six months later he still felt lost. “They took our elders,” he said.
Mr. Whitfield has tried to focus his energies on shedding light on how white supremacy contributed to his mother’s death, as well as many of the problems he saw in his own society.
“Twenty-four-seven, when there’s no big public event, life is very difficult here for people who look like us,” he said.
LeCandice Durham has been a consultant since she was shot. As an operator at the city’s 311 service, she picked up calls from residents in distress during the storm.
“I find myself crying almost every day,” said Ms. Durham.
On the morning of Mr. Singer’s funeral, his 89-year-old mother, Elizabeth Singer, watched a live broadcast from the nursing home as her family and friends celebrated her life in church. Mr. Singer was the last of Ms. Singer’s five children to survive. “This storm has taken his family,” said Tamieka Johnson, Mr. Singer’s niece.
Ms Johnson said her sister, Mr. Singer’s last sibling, died after being unable to receive treatment for an illness during the coronavirus lockdown.
Community leaders are particularly concerned with the welfare of the city’s youth.
“A child in Buffalo has a higher threshold for being shaken or shocked than a child in the suburbs,” said Duncan Kirkwood, co-chairman of We the Parents, an advocacy group. “But once you reach that threshold,” he said, “you have all this energy and anger and you want to do something but you don’t know what to do.”
The school system has sought to meet the social and emotional needs of children, in part by training staff to be more patient with their students.
“This is not business as usual, these are not normal times,” said school district principal Tonja Williams. “Sometimes children don’t cry with tears. Sometimes children cry by running around a building, knocking over a table, or using abusive language.”
In some quarters, the grief of the community was fueled by anger directed at political leaders whom they believed had done little to prepare for the storm.
“The biggest lesson we’ve learned from all this experience is that the current regime that controls City Hall will not come to our aid,” said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor of urban studies at the University of Buffalo.
Myles Carter, a local activist, stepped out to rescue people trapped in the storm when he realized that the area’s normal emergency systems were down. He was ruthless in his criticism of local government.
“To say the city was unprepared almost gives them a way out,” said Mr Carter. “I think the city willingly neglected how they were dealing with this storm.”
Buffalo mayor Byron Brown insisted that his administration do everything in its power to prepare residents for the storm and respond to their needs when the storm hits. Experts at New York University – at the request of the city – and the University of Buffalo are investigating whether this is indeed the case.
“I don’t take the messages lightly,” said Mr Brown, citing warnings in the days before the storm that residents should get everything they need, from Christmas gifts to medicine and food.
But some residents said the messages weren’t strong enough to deter people from taking their chances on the roads or employers canceling work the day the storm started.
They also claim that it does not take into account the inequalities that exist in the city.
Residents said many Black people can’t afford to stock up on extra food before the blizzard and as a result risk driving or even getting into the storm to get supplies for Christmas dinner. A 2021 study found that 11 percent of Blacks living in Buffalo are unemployed and 35 percent live below the poverty line. Mr Taylor noted that Blacks who lost power on Buffalo’s East End were more likely to suffer from the cold because many lived in poorly insulated, substandard homes.
Many in the community also said they suspect snow is clearing faster in the white suburbs than on the East End, where some streets were in disrepair before the storm. In the days after the storm, the county administrator also criticized the speed of the cleanup in Buffalo. Mayor Brown defended the city’s response. Pastor Mr. Pridgen, who is also chairman of the Buffalo Joint Council, said city officials wanted to investigate.
“As with other things, I think we’ll see the East End bear the brunt of the tragedy,” said India Walton, before defeating Mr. Brown in the Democratic primaries for mayor last year and then losing to him. General election.
“Not a priority,” he said.
At Friday’s funeral, Mr. Pridgen helped mourners remember and celebrate the life of Mr. Singer, who regularly attends church, sometimes sitting directly behind Mr. Singer. Pridgen is in front of the hall.
He acknowledged that last year tested the resilience of society. Mr Pridgen later said he had lost some of the “strongest members” of his congregation to the coronavirus pandemic and had served at mass for victims of the gun attack.
“Even though I mourn every death, sometimes it’s hard to make sense of them,” he said. “It’s my faith that should bring me to life because the question is: Why are they?”
Troy Closson and Jesse McKinley contributed to the reporting. Alain Delaquérière contributed to the research.