‘Heartbreaking’: New York surveys damage after historic blizzard

Toll in US city of Buffalo reaches 27, mayor says, as residents urged to stay home while crews clear snow-covered roads.

Emergency crews are ramping up snow-clearing and rescue operations after what has been called the “blizzard of the century” blanketed western New York state, where local officials say an already “heartbreaking” death toll is expected to rise.

Byron Brown, the mayor of Buffalo, said on Tuesday that another seven storm-related deaths were recorded, bringing the total in New York’s second largest city to 27.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to their family members,” Brown wrote on Twitter, adding that police expect the figure to increase.

The fierce winter storm pummeled large swathes of the United States over the busy Christmas holiday weekend, bringing below-average temperatures as far south as the US border with Mexico and knocking power out for as many as 1.8 million people.

In Buffalo, which sits on Lake Erie and the border with Canada, the blizzard brought numbing cold along with howling winds and heavy “lake-effect” snow, the result of moisture picked up by frigid air moving over warmer lake waters.

People were trapped in their vehicles and homes as deep, blowing snow covered roads and doorways.

In wider Erie County, which encompasses Buffalo and is home to 950,000 people, county executive Mark Poloncarz described the storm as the “greatest blizzard we’ve ever seen”.

“The blizzard conditions, of course, are gone, but we’re going to be responding in some ways to this blizzard still for a number of days,” Poloncarz said during a news conference on Tuesday, pleading with residents to stay in their homes.

“Please stay out of the city of Buffalo; you are hindering efforts to do cleanup,” he said. “I know you’ve got to get to the grocery store. I understand that, but be careful when you’re out there.”

New York Governor Kathy Hochul said this week that the storm created 2.4-metre (8-foot) snow drifts on the sides of homes and buried snow ploughs and other rescue vehicles along the sides of roads.

“This blizzard is one for the ages,” she said on Monday. “Certainly, it is the blizzard of the century.”

Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington, DC, said that while temperatures are expected to rise across the country this week, the death toll also is expected to increase as emergency responders reach hard-hit areas.

A woman walks as cars pass on a road in New York state that was hit by heavy snowfall
A woman steadies herself with ski poles in the snow in Amherst, New York, on December 26, 2022 [Brendan McDermid/Reuters]

“For example, in Buffalo, most of the fire trucks got stuck because they had white-out conditions, so they couldn’t actually go out and check cars and go door-to-door, and that’s where they’re finding a lot of these fatalities,” Culhane said.

“People in white-out conditions got stuck in the snow, ran out of gas and the temperatures were so cold that it was fatal, and so across the country, we do expect the death toll to rise,” she said.

Many parts of the US are still reeling from the storm. At least 63 storm-related deaths were reported nationwide as of Tuesday morning, according to an NBC News tally. Power outages also have struck communities from Maine to Washington state.

On the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s reservation in South Dakota, there were plans to use snowmobiles on Tuesday to reach residents after food boxes were delivered by helicopter and trucks over the weekend, the tribe said.

Flights cancelled

Western New York has been the hardest hit, however, prompting US President Joe Biden to approve an emergency declaration on Monday to allow federal assistance to flow to the state.

The weekend blizzard came a little more than a month after the New York region was inundated with another historic snowfall. Between the two storms, snowfall totals are not far off from the 242cm (95.4 inches) the area normally sees over an entire winter.

The National Weather Service predicted that as much as 2.5 to 5cm (2 inches) of snow could fall on Tuesday in Erie County.

A utility worker walks by a truck after a winter storm in NY state
Utility workers are out on the roads to restore basic services in the area surrounding Buffalo, New York [Brendan McDermid/Reuters]

“Any additional snowfall that Buffalo may continue to have today is going to be impactful,” lead forecaster Bob Oravec said. “The biggest impact is going to be how it hinders the removal of the previous snowfall.”

Meanwhile, nearly 2,900 domestic and international US flights were cancelled Tuesday as of 10am Eastern time (15:00 GMT), according to the tracking website FlightAware.

The US Department of Transportation said it plans to examine “unacceptable” mass flight cancellations and delays by Southwest Airlines to determine if they were in the airline’s control.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies