U.S. winter storm claims at least 48 lives, over half in western New York

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The death toll from a pre-Christmas blizzard in much of the United States has risen to 48, with the number in western New York alone hitting 27, authorities said Monday.

The dead have been found in their cars and homes, and in snowbanks, and some perished while shovelling snow. Rescue and recovery efforts from the days-long storm continued Monday.

On Friday and Saturday, in one of the worst-hit regions in the country, the blizzard roared through western New York, stranding motorists, knocking out power and preventing emergency crews from reaching residents in frigid homes and stuck cars.

Huge snowdrifts nearly covered cars Monday and there were thousands of houses, some adorned in unlit holiday displays, that have been dark from a lack of power.

The storm is expected to claim more lives because it trapped some residents inside houses and knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes and businesses.

Over half of U.S. population faced advisory or warning

Scientists said that the warming earth may have contributed to the intensity of the storm. That’s because the atmosphere can carry more water vapour, which acts as fuel, said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

There may be some relief this week from the extreme weather, which has stretched from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico, as forecasts are calling for temperatures in the U.S. to slowly rise, said Ashton Robinson Cook, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“Nothing like what we had last week,” he said, adding the bomb cyclone — when atmospheric pressure drops quickly in a strong storm — has weakened.

In the meantime, the recovery work continues. About 60 per cent of the U.S. population faced some sort of winter weather advisory or warning, as temperatures plummeted drastically below normal from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians.

On Monday, some 2,085 domestic and international flights were cancelled as of about noon ET, according to the tracking site FlightAware. The site said Southwest Airlines had 1,253 cancellations — nearly a third of its scheduled flights and about five times as many as any other major U.S. carrier. An email to Southwest was not immediately returned and the Dallas-based airline hadn’t updated its website about the conditions since Saturday.

Based on FlightAware data, there were from cancellations and delays at airports across the U.S., including Denver, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Seattle, Baltimore and Chicago.

Ice formed by the spray of Lake Erie waves covers a walkway during the storm in Irving, N.Y., on Saturday. (Lindsey DeDario/Reuters)

In Buffalo in recent days, there were hurricane-force winds and snow causing whiteout conditions that paralyzed emergency response efforts.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said almost every fire truck in Buffalo was stranded Saturday, and implored people Sunday to respect an ongoing driving ban in the region. The National Weather Service said the snow total at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport stood at 1.25 metres at 10 a.m. ET Monday. Officials said the airport would be shut through Tuesday morning.

With snow swirling down untouched and impassable streets, forecasters warned an additional 30 to 60 centimetres of snow were possible in some areas through early Monday morning amid wind gusts of 64 km/h. 

WATCH | Buffalo in recovery mode after powerful blizzard: 

After the storm in Buffalo

Western New York is digging out after a powerful blizzard blasted the region over Christmas weekend, killing at least 27 people.

Two people died in their suburban Cheektowaga, N.Y., homes Friday when emergency crews could not reach them in time to treat their medical conditions. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said 10 more people died there during the storm, including six in Buffalo, and warned more may be reported dead.

“Some were found in cars, some were found on the street in snowbanks,” Poloncarz said. “We know there are people who have been stuck in cars for more than two days.”

Family stuck in Buffalo while heading to Hamilton

Freezing conditions and power outages left people in Buffalo scrambling to get to anywhere with heat amid what Hochul called the longest sustained blizzard conditions ever in the city.

Ditjak Ilunga of Gaithersburg, Md., was on his way to visit relatives in Hamilton in Ontario for Christmas with his daughters Friday when their SUV was trapped in Buffalo. Unable to get help, they spent hours with the engine running, buffeted by wind and nearly buried in snow.

By 4 a.m. Saturday, their fuel nearly gone, Ilunga made a desperate choice to risk the howling storm to reach a nearby shelter. He carried six-year-old Destiny on his back while 16-year-old Cindy clutched their Pomeranian puppy, following his footprints through drifts.

“If I stay in this car, I’m going to die here with my kids,” Ilunga recalled thinking. He cried when the family walked through the shelter doors. “It’s something I will never forget in my life.”

A man holding ski poles traverses along a snowy terrain.
A man skis following the storm that hit the Buffalo region, on Main Street in Amherst, New York, on Christmas Day. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

In a nearby home, Shahida Muhammad told WKBW, a local TV station, that she had a desperate weekend after an outage knocked out power to her year-old son’s ventilator. She and the child’s father manually administered breaths from Friday until Sunday when rescuers saw her desperate social media posts and came to their aid.

Erie County officials said they went to the family’s home Saturday, but no one came to the door. Muhammad said they were there, but thankfully her son was doing well despite the ordeal. She described him as “a fighter.”

The storm knocked out power in communities from Maine to Seattle. The mid-Atlantic grid operator had called for its 65 million consumers to conserve energy amid the freeze Saturday.

WATCH | Buffalo residents, emergency crews clear the snow-filled streets:

Buffalo digs out after blizzard

Residents and emergency crews in Western New York work to clear the streets after a powerful winter storm pummelled the region over Christmas weekend, leaving at least 27 people dead.

Storm-related deaths were reported all over the country, from six motorists who died because of crashes in Missouri, Kansas and Kentucky, and a woman who fell through Wisconsin river ice.

In Jackson, Miss., city officials on Christmas Day announced residents must now boil their drinking water due to water lines bursting in the frigid temperatures.

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