A brutal winter storm has killed at least 34 people across the United States and the death toll is likely to rise as some motorists remain trapped in their cars. It has knocked out power to several hundred thousand homes and businesses.
Much of the loss of life centred in and around the city of Buffalo at the edge of Lake Erie in western New York state, as numbing cold and heavy “lake-effect” snow — the result of frigid air moving over warmer lake waters — persisted through the Christmas weekend.
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Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the storm’s confirmed death toll climbed to 13 on Sunday, up from three reported overnight in the Buffalo region. The latest victims included some found in cars and some in snow banks, Poloncarz said, adding that the death tally might rise further.
Despite a ban imposed on driving since Friday, hundreds of Erie County motorists were stranded in their vehicles over the weekend, with National Guard troops called in to help with rescues complicated by white-out conditions and drifting snow, Poloncarz said.
“This is not the Christmas any of us hoped for nor expected,” he said on Twitter. “My deepest condolences to the families who have lost loved ones.”
The scope of the storm has been nearly unprecedented, stretching from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande River along the border with Mexico. About 60 percent of the US population faced some sort of winter weather advisory or warning, and temperatures plummeted drastically below normal from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians, the National Weather Service said.
John Burns, 58, a retiree in North Buffalo, said he and his family were trapped in their house for 36 hours by the storm and extreme cold that he called “mean and nasty”.
“Nobody was out. Nobody was even walking their dogs,” he said. “Nothing was going on for two days.”
Ditjak Ilunga of Gaithersburg, Maryland, was on his way to visit relatives in Hamilton, Ontario, for Christmas with his daughters on Friday when their car was trapped in Buffalo. Unable to get help, they spent hours with the engine running, buffeted by wind and nearly buried in snow.
By 4am local time (09:00 GMT) on 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.”
New York Governor Kathy Hochul told reporters on Sunday that the administration of President Joe Biden had agreed to support her request for a federal disaster declaration.
“It is [like] going to a warzone, and the vehicles along the sides of the roads are shocking,” said Hochul, a native of Buffalo. Residents of the area were still in the throes of a “very dangerous life-threatening situation”, she said, warning everyone to remain indoors.
The storm, which was moving east on Sunday, knocked out power in communities from Maine to Seattle.
But heat and lights were steadily being restored across the US. According to poweroutage.us, less than 200,000 customers were without power on Sunday afternoon, down from a peak of 1.7 million.
Concerns about rolling blackouts across eastern states subsided on Sunday after PJM Interconnection said its utilities could meet the day’s peak electricity demand. The mid-Atlantic grid operator had called for its 65 million consumers to conserve energy amid the freeze on Saturday.
Storm-related deaths were reported in recent days all over the country: 13 in Erie County, New York, ranging in age from 26 to 93 years old, and another in Niagara County, where a 27-year-old man was overcome by carbon monoxide after snow blocked his furnace; two in Cheektowaga, New York; 10 in Ohio, including an electrocuted utility worker and those killed in multiple car crashes; six motorists died 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.
The storm, one of the fiercest in decades, forced the cancellation of more than 2,400 US flights on Sunday, in addition to some 3,500 scrapped on Saturday and nearly 6,000 on Friday, according to tracking website Flightaware.com.
Travellers remained stranded, or their flights delayed, at airports throughout Christmas Day, including in the cities of Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit and New York. The airport in Buffalo remained closed, with the National Weather Service saying that the snowfall there was recorded at 109cm (43 inches) on Sunday morning.
White-out conditions persisted south of Buffalo on Sunday afternoon, with snow falling at the rate of 5-7cm (2-3 inches) an hour.
Across the border in Canada, electricity was also out to at least 140,000 utility customers, mostly in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, hard hit by the same weather system that buried western New York state in snow.
A Christmas Eve bus crash that police said was likely due to icy road conditions near Loon Lake in Canada’s British Columbia killed four people and left dozens hospitalised, authorities confirmed on Sunday.