Emergency crews in New York were scrambling to rescue marooned residents from what authorities called the “blizzard of the century,” a relentless storm that has left 27 dead in the state and taken at least 60 lives nationwide, according to an NBC News tally.
In New York state, authorities have described ferocious conditions, particularly in Buffalo, with hours-long whiteouts, bodies being discovered in vehicles and under snow banks, and emergency personnel going “car to car” searching for more motorists, alive or dead.
On Monday night, US president Joe Biden issued a federal emergency declaration for the state of New York, authorising government assistance to bolster state and local recovery efforts.
“My heart is with those who lost loved ones this holiday weekend. You are in my and Jill’s prayers,” Biden said in a Twitter message earlier in the day.
New York governor, Kathy Hochul, emphasised that it remains important for people to stay home and remain off the roads. “Anyone who declares victory and says that it’s over, it is way too early to say,” Hochul said, adding, “The storm is coming back, we’re expecting another six to 12 inches.”
Hochul said some western New York towns got walloped with “30 to 40 inches (0.75 to 1 meter) of snow overnight.”
“Certainly it is the blizzard of the century,” Hochul told reporters, adding it was “way too early to say this is at its completion.”
Hochul, a native of Buffalo, said she was stunned by what she saw during a reconnaissance tour of the city.
“It is (like) going to a war zone, and the vehicles along the sides of the roads are shocking,” Hochul said, describing eight-foot (2.4-meter) drifts against homes as well as snow plows and rescue vehicles “buried” in snow.
“This is a war with mother nature,” she said.
The perfect storm of fierce snow squalls, howling wind and sub-zero temperatures forced the cancellation of more than 15,000 US flights in recent days, including at least 2,600 on Monday, according to tracking site Flightaware.com.
The National Weather Service forecast up to 14 more inches Monday in addition to the several feet that have already left the city buried in snow, with officials struggling to get emergency services back online.
Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz told a press briefing that the county’s death toll will probably surpass that of Buffalo’s blizzard of 1977, when nearly 30 people died.
“We do expect that there will be more” deaths from the ongoing storm,” he said.
The extreme weather sent temperatures to below freezing in all 48 contiguous US states over the weekend, including in Texas communities along the Mexico border where some newly arriving migrants have struggled to find shelter.
Storm-related deaths were reported all over the country: 10 in Ohio, including an electrocuted utility worker and those killed in multiple car crashes; six motorists killed in crashes in Missouri, Kansas and Kentucky; a Vermont woman struck by a falling branch; an apparently homeless man found amid Colorado’s subzero temperatures; and a woman who fell through Wisconsin river ice.
In Jackson, Mississippi, city officials on Christmas Day announced residents must boil their drinking water due to water lines freezing and bursting.
At one point on Saturday, nearly 1.7 million customers were without electricity in the biting cold, according to tracker poweroutage.us. That number has dropped substantially, although there were still 50,000 without electricity midday Monday on the US east coast.
Road ice and whiteout conditions also led to the temporary closure of some of the nation’s busiest transport routes, including part of the cross-country Interstate 70 highway.
Drivers were being warned not to take to the roads – even as the nation reached what is usually its busiest time of year for travel.