Buffalo’s New Evacuation Routes
ArtVoice 3/14/02

by Michael I. Niman

The winter’s just about over.  We’ve survived seven feet of snow fine.  It’s been six months since 9-11, and folks are taking to the skies again.  There’s hardly a twinge of concern these days when we hear planes pass overhead.  It’s been over almost a year and a half since the coup, and so far, no marshal law.  It’s been two years since the dreaded Y2K and my computer is still chugging along.  Spring is in the air.  Considering all the doomsday scenarios, we’re doing OK.  But just when you thought it was safe to go outside, the Masiello administration started erecting “EVACUATION ROUTE” signs all over Buffalo.

Now what?

I first saw them as I headed north on Delaware Avenue.  Big Blue signs emblazoned with white letters spelling out the words, “evacuation route.”  Evacuation from what, I wondered. Hmmm.

Buffalo has a bizarre relationship with Florida.  Every major town in Florida serves what they call “Buffalo Style” foods.  It started out with wings, but now includes a host of supposed Buffalo favorites such as “Buffalo Style Alligator Bits.”  In Florida you can deep fry anything, dip it in Franks Hot Sauce, serve it with Kraft Blue Cheese dressing, and call it “Buffalo Style.”  Hence, you have Buffalo’s impact on Florida’s culture and obesity rates.  But what do we get?  What little piece of Florida have all the sunbirds in city hall brought back for us?

I think the answer lies with these new “evacuation routes.”  They’re omnipresent in Florida.  Much of Florida’s population lives on precarious sand spits jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.  This being hurricane territory, they all have evacuation routes, designated streets upon which they are all supposed to pile into their SUVs and, without panicking, calmly drive away from the impending tidal wave.

Buffalo – Just Like Florida

Now we have evacuation routes too.  Just like Florida.  A little piece of the Sunshine State right here on Delaware Avenue.  But as I started passing sign after sign, I couldn’t help but think about what I possibly might be evacuating myself from?  A hurricane or typhoon driven tidal wave coming in off of Lake Erie?  No.  There’s not enough water left in Lake Erie to do any damage.

Maybe we’re evacuating from an earthquake.  But if that’s the case, why are we heading north, up toward all the chemical plants?  That seems stupid.  Ditto if we’re running from terrorists.  We wouldn’t be heading up toward the toxic tank farms.  So I swung my car around and headed back toward downtown to see if maybe the signs ran in both directions.  But they didn’t.  They just head out of the city.

Maybe the two snowflakes on the sign are supposed to offer a clue.  But this is Buffalo.  Maybe they’re meant to simply offer a holiday greeting piggybacked on our doomsday signage.  Hmmm.   Could this be a snow evacuation route?  If so, why?  Why evacuate from the snow.  Evacuation is the last thing I want to do when it’s cold and miserable outside.  I’d prefer to simply go home, not evacuate.  We’re pretty safe indoors during a snow emergency, albeit a little bit bored.  Not even seven feet of snow caused anything to collapse outside of a handful of carports, picnic shelters, and substandard buildings (such as a big awning passing itself off as a boat storage building on Grand Island).  No need for evacuation here.

Kenmore - Nirvana

So I swung my car around again and continued heading north.  I wanted to see where I was being evacuated to.  The signs in Florida lead you to solid ground.  They designate routes leading off of exposed peninsulas and onto the mainland.  But Buffalo’s already on the mainland.  Where are we going?

Finally the signs ended and I was in Kenmore. Now I’m really confused.  What possible emergency would necessitate my removal to Kenmore?  Not snow.  It snows in Kenmore too.  And even if it didn’t, the people in Kenmore aren’t likely to welcome me or take me in just because my hood has snow.  Snow emergencies require that traffic move in two directions, not one.  So I’m still clueless.   Why am I supposed to flee to Kenmore?  Is it a volcano?  A tornado?  Perhaps a biblical plague?

Then it hit me.  Buffalonians have been evacuating to the suburbs for two generations now.  Since 1960 this migration has claimed over half of our city’s population. These signs must simply be historic markers.  

But Seriously…

But seriously, this is the problem.  This head to the hills mentality is so ingrained in the local culture that it’s wormed its way into the psyches of our top government leaders.  I called city hall.  The mayor’s office offered no comment or explanation for the new signs.  But given their recent history of comments and explanations for things, this is probably the brightest move they’ve made in weeks. The Traffic Engineering Division actually erected the signs.  When I asked a spokesperson there what the signs were about, she impatiently asked if I noticed the snowflakes.  Yeah.  Well, “the signs designate our new snow evacuation routes – these are the first streets to be plowed and kept clear.” 

I’ve got nothing against clearing major streets, but we already do that.  We call them “Bus Routes,” not “Evacuation routes.”  There’s something calmer and less hysterical about a bus route.  Local law says you can’t park on them at night in the winter so plows can keep them clear.  We can even call a few of the more central streets “Snow Emergency Routes,” a better clearer descriptive that doesn’t ring of terror and doom.  We ain’t evacuating, we’re just plowing some snow.  “Evacuate” means “to remove the contents of,”  “To excrete or discharge waste matter from,” or “to withdraw, especially from a threatened area.”

Delaware Avenue is not alone in earning this designation.  Similar signs are going up on routes all over the city.  They all have one thing in common, however.  They all lead out of the city.  No signage leads into the city, and no routes are designated for cross-town traffic.  Yet, there is no reason why we would want to leave the city in a storm unless we lived in the ‘burbs.”  But, with most area jobs now existing outside of Buffalo, our rush hour runs both ways. Yet no one is evacuating Buffalonians out of Cheektowaga.  In fact, many suburbanites left without power after this year’s ice storm, evacuated into the city for warmth and shelter. 

We Can’t Afford Such Nonsense

  These signs make no sense.  They serve no purpose other than to cause stress by posting the word “evacuation” all over our city.  We’re not living on a spit of sand in a hurricane-wracked region, nor are we living in the shadow of a nuclear plant.  We’re living in Buffalo – the “City of Good Neighbors.” I can’t think of a better place to be during an emergency and I certainly have no interest in evacuating. 

  These signs also offer a subconscious message.  They perpetuate the long held local myth that suburban life is safe, saner and less threatening.  This is also the underlying message in most of our local media.  It’s why people, driven by their fears, give up Victorian homes for the architectural squalor of ticky-tacky particleboard cookie cutter domiciles.

  Maybe I’m reading too much into simple traffic signs.  But then, in a city that is tethering on the edge of bankruptcy, why am I reading these signs at all?  They don’t have a clear message or purpose.  The folks at City Hall wouldn’t tell me how much they cost – “that’s not public information.”  Suffice to say, however, we can’t afford such nonsense.  Nor can we afford any further evacuation.  There’s nothing here to run from but ourselves.