Days into the deadly winter storm that bedeviled much of the country, the challenges are far from over for residents and authorities in Buffalo, New York.
The death toll continues to climb as authorities check on homes and cars for anyone who was stranded in the storm. At least 31 people died in New York’s Erie County as the storm buried Buffalo in up to 50.3 inches of snow. At least 25 others across 11 US states have been reported dead in the storm.
“We’re, unfortunately, finding bodies on the street and in snow banks,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday evening.
More than 7,000 utility workers were working around the clock to restore power in the area, navigating through broken trees and poles, according to Twitter posts from Poloncarz and National Grid US.
Local health officials were urgently responding to medical requests, including arranging transportation for people who need dialysis treatments – many of which were disrupted or delayed because of the storm. “Dialysis isn’t an optional or elective treatment. It has to be done regularly – several times a week – or that person dies,” the Erie County health department said.
Baggage waits to be claimed after canceled flights at the Southwest Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday, December 26, 2022, in Los Angeles.
Buffalo police, meanwhile, arrested at least eight people by Tuesday afternoon in connection with business break-ins during the storm.
And efforts of firefighters and other emergency vehicles working in the area were hampered by the hundreds of vehicles abandoned in the snow across Buffalo after fierce blizzard conditions made for blinding drives over the Christmas weekend, officials said.
A driving ban remained in effect in Buffalo amid a two-day effort to clear at least one lane on every street to accommodate emergency responders, Poloncarz said at a news conference.
“There’s a lot of roads that are completely blocked right now, that have no access whatsoever. And people are trying to drive on these roads or trying to get into these neighborhoods, and they can’t,” Poloncarz said.
“Please, please,” he said. “I’m begging: Stay home. If it’s an emergency situation, call 911.”
Driving ban in effect; flood mitigation
Buffalo could see up to another half an inch of snow into Tuesday night and a daytime high of 30 degrees falling to 27 at night in New York’s second-most populous city.
But temperatures are expected to rise throughout the rest of the week, and local officials are worried that may cause flooding.
The flood risk is small, according to the National Weather Service, which said that snow melting alone “rarely causes flooding.” And even though there’s light rain forecast for the region, “it should take around an inch of rain from this system before flooding becomes a concern,” the weather service said.
Still, the leader of Erie County’s Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Services said crews were working to prevent any possibility of floods.
As temperatures warm, authorities wanted “to make sure that we are cleared from curb to curb and as in many areas as possible so that when it melts it can run off and it can find its appropriate drainage,” commissioner Daniel Neaverth said.
Other steps toward recovery include:
• President Joe Biden on Monday approved an emergency declaration for New York, freeing up federal resources to help disaster relief efforts in Erie and Genesee counties.
• One hundred military police from the New York National Guard are heading to Erie County, along with state police from other parts of New York, Poloncarz said. New Jersey state police will fill in for New York officers diverted to Buffalo, he said.
• Buffalo Niagara International Airport is expected to stay closed until late Wednesday morning, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority said, after snow equipment was brought in from Pittsburgh to help it reopen.
• More supermarkets in western New York were expected to reopen after road conditions had paralyzed earlier efforts to distribute stockpiled ready-to-eat meals to food banks, officials said.
• Major highways – including the New York State Thruway, Interstates 20 and 990, and Routes 400 and 219 – have reopened, the state Transportation Department’s Rochester office announced.
It was a signal, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a tweet, “that we are finally turning the corner on this once-in-a-generation storm.”
‘Gut-wrenching’ effort to check on residents plods on
The storm in Buffalo has been deemed more ferocious than the blizzard of 1977, which left 23 people there dead. The weekend weather “was just horrendous,” Poloncarz said earlier. “And it was horrendous for 24 hours in a row.”
Indeed, blizzard conditions were recorded for 37.5 hours, CNN meteorologist Tom Sater said, noting, “That just doesn’t happen.”
Even emergency and recovery vehicles were at times stuck in the snow. “We had rescuers rescuing the rescuers,” Buffalo Deputy Mayor Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney told “CNN This Morning” on Tuesday, adding those problems have been resolved.
Hundreds of vehicles were abandoned in the snow in Buffalo, New York State Police Acting Superintendent Steven Nigrelli said, adding authorities were going door-to-door, car-to-car, checking for people.
One reported death in Erie County was attributed to an EMS delay, while others involved people who were outside, in cars, had no heating or suffered cardiac arrest.
The death toll is expected to rise, officials have said. Once roads are cleared, law enforcement planned to prioritize welfare checks, Erie County Sheriff John Garcia said Monday.
“I have a bad feeling about that. I think the death toll is going to go up. When you have 420 EMS calls that are unanswered, it’s just gut-wrenching,” the sheriff said as his team planned to help get “people to doctors, nurses, to hospitals and dialysis.”
By Tuesday evening, there were “just under 2,000” residents without power across Buffalo, Mayor Byron W. Brown said on Twitter, adding officials were still working to restore power to everyone.
Getting the lights back on has been no easy task as utility crews have faced dangerous weather conditions, Hochul said.
At least 56 storm-related deaths have been reported across several states:
- New York: In addition to the 31 deaths in Erie County, one fatal carbon monoxide poisoning has been reported in Niagara County.
- Colorado: Police in Colorado Springs reported two deaths related to the cold since Thursday, with one man found near a power transformer of a building, possibly seeking warmth, and another in a camp in an alleyway.
- Kansas: Three people have died in weather-related traffic accidents, the Highway Patrol said Friday.
- Kentucky: Three people have died, officials have said, including one involving a vehicle crash in Montgomery County.
- Missouri: One person died after a van slid off an icy road and into a frozen creek, Kansas City police said
- New Hampshire: A hiker was found dead in Franconia on Christmas morning, Lt. James Kneeland, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, said.
- Ohio: Nine people have died as a result of weather-related auto crashes, including four in a Saturday morning crash on Interstate 75, when a tractor-trailer crossed the median and collided with an SUV and a pickup, authorities said.
- South Carolina: Two men – including a 91-year-old who went outside on Christmas Day to fix a broken water pipe – died due to the storm in Anderson County, the coroner’s office there said. The other victim died on Christmas Eve after his home lost power.
- Tennessee: The Department of Health on Friday confirmed one storm-related fatality.
- Vermont: One woman in Castleton died after a tree fell on her home, according to the police chief.
- Wisconsin: The State Patrol on Thursday reported one fatal crash due to winter weather.
100 inches of snow sets Buffalo record
Across the country, cities and towns remain covered with thick snow: Baraga, Michigan, got 42.8 inches of snow while Henderson Harbor, New York, got 40.8 inches.
Buffalo has had the snowiest start ever to a winter season, with 92.7 inches of measurable snowfall from October through Christmas Day, according to the National Weather Service. The latest storm came just one month after the region was slammed with a historic snowstorm.
And thanks to another 7.3 inches of snow that fell Monday, the city has already reached 100 inches for the season – faster than any previous year going back to the 1880s, when record-keeping began. Half this season’s record-pace snowfall has occurred since Friday.