As a massive winter storm continues to blast much of the US with brutal winter weather – leading to at least 37 deaths nationwide – parts of western New York have been buried by up to 43 inches of snow, leaving vehicles stuck and power out for thousands during the Christmas weekend.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul told CNN the storm is the “most devastating storm in Buffalo’s long storied history.” The heavy snowfall and blizzard conditions made roads impassable with zero visibility, froze power substations and left at least 17 people across the state dead as of Sunday night.
Western New York is drowning in thick “lake effect” snow – which forms when cold air moves over the warm waters of the Great Lakes – just one month after the region was slammed with a historic snowstorm.
As rescue crews and hundreds of plow drivers fanned out on Christmas Day, even emergency and recovery vehicles sent out to help have gotten stuck in the snow. Eleven ambulances that had to be abandoned were dug out on Sunday, officials said.
“The rescue team was rescuing rescuers … it was so horrible,” Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz said during a news conference Sunday. Many of New York’s weather-related fatalities were in Erie County, where some people were found dead in cars and on the street in snowbanks, he said.
Deaths reported in Buffalo “are people found outside and in cars,” a Buffalo Police statement read.
Hundreds of National Guard troops have been deployed to help with rescue efforts in New York. State police had been involved in over 500 rescues by Sunday, including delivering a baby and helping a man with 4% left on his mechanical heart, the governor said.
“We’re still in the throes of this very dangerous life-threatening situation,” Hochul said, urging residents to stay off the roads as a driving ban remains in place in Erie County through Monday.
“Our state and county plows have been out there, nonstop, giving up time and putting themselves in danger, driving through blinding snowstorms to clear the roads,” Hochul said.
As blistering blizzard conditions swept the region, about 500 motorists found themselves stranded in their vehicles Friday night into Saturday morning, according to Poloncarz, who described frightening conditions on the road.
“Think about looking just a few feet in front of you at a sheet of white for more than 24 hours in a row. That’s what it was like outside in the worst conditions,” he said. “It was continual blizzard and white outs such that no one could see where they were going. Nobody had any idea what was happening.”
While abandoned vehicles pepper the snow-covered roadways – with hundreds of cars still along the streets of Buffalo – conditions are also difficult inside homes.
Some residents have remained in their homes for the last 56 hours, some without power in the freezing cold, Hochul said during the press conference. This is not due to a lack of resources, the governor said, but rather a mobility and access challenge faced by utility companies.
As of Sunday evening, 94.5% of Erie County residents and 87% of Buffalo residents have had their power restored, Hochul said.
Still, there were 12,000 homes and businesses in Erie County without power Sunday evening, and many won’t have lights and heating back until Tuesday, Poloncarz said.
Buffalo will continue to see snowfall and frigid cold temperatures Monday, with a high of 23 degrees expected in the daytime and a low of 18 at night, according to the National Weather Service.
In pictures: Winter storm impacts the US
Over the past week, the prolonged winter storm has enveloped a large swath of the US with dangerously low temperatures and wind chills, also bringing with it widespread power outages and thousands of canceled flights.
More than 10 million people were under freeze alerts across the South Monday, including residents in Orlando, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Mobile, Montgomery and Birmingham.
Sub-freezing temperatures are expected across the affected areas, where temperatures will be in the teens and low 20s, potentially killing crops and damaging plumbing. The majority of these alerts are set to expire Monday morning as temperatures finally begin to recover from the polar air.
Nationwide, more than 98,000 customers were still without power Christmas evening, according to PowerOutage.US. Since the start of the storm, the number of outages has at times exceeded a million customers.
As the brutal weather continued, multiple storm-related deaths have been reported across several states. In addition to the deaths in New York, the fatalities include:
• Colorado: Police in Colorado Springs, Colorado, reported two deaths related to the cold since Thursday, with one man found near a power transformer of a building possibly looking for warmth, and another in a camp in an alleyway.
• Kansas: Three people have died in weather-related traffic accidents, the Kansas Highway Patrol said Friday.
• Kentucky: Three people have died in the state, officials have said, including one involving a vehicle crash in Montgomery County.
• Missouri: One person died after a caravan slid off an icy road and into a frozen creek, Kansas City police 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 semi tractor-trailer crossed the median and collided with an SUV and a pickup, authorities said.
• Tennessee: The Tennessee Department of Health on Friday confirmed one storm-related fatality.
• Wisconsin: Wisconsin State Patrol on Thursday reported one fatal crash due to winter weather.
The powerful system that brought blizzard and winter weather alerts continues to move away from the Northeast, yet many cities and towns remain covered with thick snow. Over a 24-hour span, Baraga, Michigan, received 42.8 inches of snow while Watertown, New York, got 34.2 inches.
Grand Rapids, Michigan, had its snowiest Christmas Eve ever, receiving a record 10.5 inches, according to the National Weather Service.
Winter storm warnings remain in effect in New York for Buffalo, Jamestown and Watertown and will expire throughout the following couple of days. Forecasts show Jamestown could see another 8 inches of snow, Buffalo could see another 14 inches and Watertown could see another 3 feet. Winds could also gust up to 40 mph.
Lake effect snow warnings remain north of Jamestown until 10 a.m. EST Tuesday, an area where up to 18 inches are possible.
Lingering lake-effect snows blowing downwind from the Great Lakes will slowly become less intense, but the Arctic air enveloping much of the eastern half of the nation will be slow to moderate, according to the National Weather Service.
Lake-effect snows will continue to make for hazardous travel conditions for the next couple of days and conditions are expected to slowly improve over the week.
The low-pressure system is forecast to move farther away into Canada, while another system quickly across the northern US into Monday, bringing snow from the northern Plains through the Midwest.
Much of the rest of the eastern part of the country will still be in a deep freeze through Monday before a moderating trend sets in on Tuesday, forecasters said.