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U.S.: Cash and the “Blizzard of ‘22”

Categories : Cash and Crises, Cash does not require a technology infrastructure, Cash generates security, Cash is a contingency and fall-back solution, Costs of cash versus costs of electronic payment instruments
January 2, 2023
Tags : Cash and Crises, Cash Infrastructure, Climate change, Disaster, disaster recovery, US
A massive winter storm caused widespread power outages across the United States. Cash demonstrated its resilience during the blizzard in the worst-affected Buffalo area.
Manuel A. Bautista-González

Ph.D. in U.S. History, Columbia University in the City of New York

Post-Doctoral Researcher in Global Correspondent Banking, 1870-2000 – Mexico and South America, University of Oxford

This post is also available in: Spanish

In mid-December, a massive winter storm brought heavy snow and cold winds across much of the United States. The arctic freeze stretched from the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande, lowering temperatures drastically (see Figure 1).

Roughly two-thirds of the U.S. population (more than 200 million people) faced winter weather warnings or advisories on Friday, December 23. The “bomb cyclone” caused dozens of deaths, power outages, flight cancellations, and dangerous driving conditions across the country.

Figure 1. United States: Degrees Warmer or Colder than Average Low Temperature for December 24, 2024 (Fahrenheit Degrees)

Note: -30 ºF = -34.44 ºC; +20 ºF = -6.7 ºC. Source: New York Times.

Power Outages

The winter storm caused electricity outages from Maine to Seattle. By Friday morning, 1.14 million U.S. and 155,000 customers in Canada had no power.

Power outages took digital payment infrastructures offline like other extreme weather events. Their effects were limited, as the blizzard stranded all but essential workers at home and kept shoppers eager to get holiday gifts away from stores.

Flights Disrupted

Airlines canceled thousands of flights, stranding travelers. U.S. airlines are obligated to provide a full refund for a canceled flight.

Buffalo: Eye of the Storm

“Historic storms are no longer historic to us.” – New York Governor Kathy Hochul.

In western New York state (a region well prepared for winter conditions) and Buffalo (the state’s second-most populous city), the worst blizzard since 1977 left at least 39 dead and thousands without power. Hurricane-force winds reached 74 mph (119 km/h), paralyzing emergency response efforts.

Payments during the Blizzard

Mobile payments: Some users requested donations via the Cash app. However, most people’s cell phones ran out of battery, such as Jeremy Manahan, who waited 29 hours without electricity until he could charge his phone. Cellphone batteries’ perform less optimally below 0 ºC and stop working at -15 ºC.

Card payments. Lacking employees, some gas stations only accepted card payments. Thruway update: Fuel services at Angola Service Area (south of Buffalo on I-90) are limited to credit card sales only. The Thruway Authority says this is due to weather and no staffing. Restaurants and restrooms are open.” – Robert Harding (@RobertHarding).

Getting cash in advance: Nerdwallet writer Taryn Phaneuf recommended “having extra cash available [as that] could ease the stress of needing to replace food or stay in a hotel if the power in your home goes out for a long time before the storm.”

Cash came in handy: Stuck in her car, Cassandra Garmon, a single mother and pharmacy technician, wrote a message to the Buffalo Blizzard 2022 Facebook group: “I’m in desperate need of help y’all. I’ve been out here since 3pm please. On Clinton between Babcock and Bushnell. I have cash.” Eventually, a volunteer helped Garmon with a snowmobile; others brought her home to her two daughters.

Cash kept small businesses goingCraig Elston, owner of C&C Cutz in Buffalo, helped dozens of people find shelter in his barbershop during the blizzard. Elston also gave haircuts to “maybe five people […]. If you’re going to be buying food for 30 people who are sleeping in your barbershop, you can at least earn some cash through cutting people’s hair.”

After the Blizzard: Retailers and the Cash Infrastructure

Buffalo residents were running low on food, medicine, and other essentials. Many supermarkets, grocery stores, and restaurants remained closed through Tuesday, December 27. Some looters stole cash registers and an A.T.M. at Broadway Market.

On December 27, the N.Y.S. Department of Financial Services asked banks to give free banking and cash services to western New Yorkers to limit the need for travel.

Cash and Emergency Preparedness 

The resilience of cash in natural disasters (such as snowstorm Uri in Texas and hurricane Ida in Louisiana) makes it essential to the public and private sectors’ preparedness, emergency, and recovery efforts.

This post is also available in: Spanish