The death toll from a devastating winter blizzard that left much of the United States in a deep freeze has risen to at least 25 in a hard-hit region of western New York state, authorities said, as tens of thousands remain without power.
During a news conference on Monday, Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz said at least 25 people had died there as a result of the storm, which pummeled the area during the Christmas holiday weekend.
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The entire county, which includes the city of Buffalo and is home to approximately 950,000 people, remained under a state of emergency, Poloncarz told reporters. He added that a driving ban also is still in place for Buffalo because the city is “impassable in most areas”.
“This is a horrible situation,” he said, explaining that storm-related deaths increased by 12 overnight, including cases of people who were found in snow banks or in their cars, or who died from cardiac events while ploughing or blowing snow.
“The ferocity of the storm was worse than the blizzard of ’77,” said Poloncarz, referring to a three-day storm that killed nearly 30 people decades ago.
25 storm related fatalities have been confirmed to date by the Medical Examiner's office.
Please remember not all fatalities are storm related, but 25 have been officially confirmed.
Again my deepest, sincere condolences to all who have lost a loved one.
— Mark Poloncarz (@markpoloncarz) December 26, 2022
The weekend storm – which New York Governor Kathy Hochul said would go down in history as “the Blizzard of ’22” and “the blizzard of the century” – now has been blamed for at least 48 deaths across the US.
In western New York, numbing cold combined with howling winds and heavy “lake-effect” snow – the result of moisture picked up by frigid air moving over warmer lake waters – produced the harsh conditions.
The blizzard stranded motorists, knocked electricity out for thousands of people and made it difficult for emergency crews to reach residents trapped in their cars and homes.
Ditjak Ilunga of Gaithersburg, Maryland, was on his way to visit relatives in Hamilton, Ontario, for Christmas with his daughters on Friday when their SUV became trapped in Buffalo, the second-largest city in the state.
Unable to get help, they spent hours with the engine running, buffeted by wind and nearly buried in snow.
By 4am (09:00 GMT) Saturday, and their fuel nearly empty, Ilunga made a desperate choice to risk the howling storm to reach a nearby shelter. He carried his six-year-old daughter 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.”
Tens of thousands of homes and businesses remained without power on Monday as rescue and recovery efforts continued. According to PowerOutage.us, fewer than 100,000 customers were without power Monday at 7am Eastern Time (12:00 GMT) – down from a peak of 1.7 million.
The storm capped an Arctic freeze and winter storm front that had extended over most of the US for days, stretching as far south as the Mexican border.
US President Joe Biden had warned Americans late last week to heed local warnings and take the storm – which he described as “dangerous and threatening” – seriously.
“It’s really very serious weather, and it goes from Oklahoma all the way to Wyoming and Maine,” Biden had said.
On Monday morning, the National Weather Service warned that “lake-effect” snow would continue through early Tuesday in the Buffalo, New York, area before weakening by late Tuesday afternoon.
Hundreds of national guard troops were assisting local first responders and state police as crews rescued people trapped in homes and cars, performed wellness checks and delivered food and basic needs.
Poloncarz in Erie County also said that, with an additional 32cm (1 foot) of snow possible on Monday, residents needed to stay in place.
“This is not the end yet,” he said. “We are not there.”
That was echoed by Hochul, the governor of New York, who said during a news conference in Buffalo later in the day that the situation remained dangerous.
She urged people to remain at home as crews continued to plough and salt the roads, and worked to get abandoned vehicles out of the snow.
“This blizzard is one for the ages. Certainly, it is the blizzard of the century,” said Hochul, who told reporters she was stunned by what she saw during a reconnaissance tour of Buffalo.
“It is [like] going to a war zone, and the vehicles along the sides of the roads are shocking,” the governor said, describing 2.4m (eight-foot) drifts against homes as well as snow plows and rescue vehicles “buried” in snow. “This is a war with mother nature.”