(BUFFALO, N.Y.) — At least 60 people have died nationwide from the wintry weather that wreaked havoc across the U.S. over Christmas weekend.
The most deaths are in western New York, where 38 people have died in the wake of a massive lake-effect snowstorm, local officials announced Wednesday.
Hochul called the storm “the blizzard of the century” in western New York during a news conference Monday and said the White House has promised to quickly approve an emergency disaster declaration. President Joe Biden said he spoke to Hochul on Monday afternoon. He approved a federal emergency declaration in New York Monday evening.
Thirty-seven of New York’s deaths are in Erie County, which includes the city of Buffalo, Mark Poloncarz, the executive of Erie County, said Wednesday. One storm-related death was reported in neighboring Niagara County, officials said.
Poloncarz said two new storm-related deaths were confirmed overnight by the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office.
He said 29 of the deaths in Erie County occurred in the city of Buffalo. Poloncarz said three people who died, two men and a woman, remained unidentified Wednesday morning.
Among the storm-related causes of death confirmed by the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office were three people who suffered heart attacks while shoveling or blowing snow, 14 people who were found outside and three who died due to an EMS delay.
Poloncarz said National Guard troopers and an emergency medical services task force are going door to door Wednesday conducting wellness checks at locations they could not be reached during the storm.
Among those who perished in the storm in Buffalo was William Clay, who died on his 56th birthday, his sister, Sophia Clay, told ABC News. Sophia Clay said her brother was on his way to a store on Friday when the weather worsened. His body was found frozen on a street, authorities said.
William Clay, according to his sister, was the father of one son, a grandfather of two, and one of seven siblings. She said he read the Bible daily and could quote scripture by heart.
“He’s one of those people that it was in his heart. He spoke it; he lived it. He was a great brother, he was a great grandfather, he was a great friend,” Sophia Clay said.
A driving state of emergency remains in effect in Erie County and Poloncarz said police will start issuing summons to people driving around — “joyriding” — in violation of the driving ban.
Some bus service has been restored in the Buffalo, said Mayor Bryron Brown. Poloncarz said about 65% of all city streets have at least one lane of traffic open and crews are working to get lane open on all state and county roads by the end of Wednesday.
Poloncarz said he’s been talking to state officials about taking over future snow response operations in Buffalo because the city has time and again dropped the ball.
“The mayor’s not going to be happy to hear about it, but storm after storm after storm after storm the city unfortunately is the last one to be open. And that shouldn’t be the case,” Poloncarz said. “It’s embarrassing to tell the truth.”
A driving ban remained in effect for the city of Buffalo, but Poloncarz said people were not heeding the ban and getting stuck, causing delays for emergency vehicles, snowplows and other large pieces of equipment trying to clear the streets of mountains of snow and abandoned vehicles.
He said 100 National Guard police officers and additional New York State troopers are in Buffalo to prevent unauthorized vehicles from entering the city.
“People just are not obeying the driving ban,” said Poloncarz, justifying the use of military police to enforce the ban.
Buffalo received more than 50 inches of snow over the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.
Reports of looting
Poloncarz also said that police are investigating scattered reports of looting in Buffalo.
“I’m heartbroken about the deaths, just absolutely devastated to see as many deaths. And then to find out that there’s looting going on in our community at the same time we’re still recovering bodies is just horrible,” Poloncarz said.
Daniel Neaverth Jr., the Erie County commissioner of Emergency Services, said more than a dozen gas stations in the county have been reported inoperable “because the convenience side of them has been looted and the equipment inside has been rendered ineffective and thus the pumps for the fueling are ineffective.”
Neaverth said the looting was hampering emergency vehicles from fueling up.
“So if you don’t think there’s a trickle down from going looting and grabbing individual little things, this is a drastic implication for us that we now have to deal with to find alternate fuel sources,” Neaverth said.
Brown said police responded to several looting in the city of Buffalo and have made some arrests. The mayor said it was “reprehensible” that people are taking advantage of a natural disaster, calling the looters “the lowest of the low.”
At one point, 23,000 households lost power, said Jackie Bray, the state commissioner of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. National Grid, the local utility company, said Wednesday that about 840 customers remain without power.
‘Winter wonderland tour’ bus rescue
Polocarz added that hundreds of cars were left abandoned on roadways across the county, including tractor-trailer rigs and buses.
“There are cars everywhere pointing the wrong direction on roads. They’ve basically been plowed in and need to be dug out and towed,” Poloncarz said.
Among the hundreds who had to be rescued was a group of tourists from around the world on a “winter wonderland bus tour,” Poloncarz said. He said the bus got stuck in the Buffalo suburb of Lackawanna and that rescue crews had to evacuate passengers and take them to a nearby shelter.
“These tourists are getting more than they bargained for with regards to their ‘winter wonderland tour’ as they’ve gone through one of the worst storms in U.S. history,” Poloncarz said.
The “colossal” snowstorm brought winds of nearly 80 mph to Buffalo, the governor said.
“This will go down in history as the most devastating storm” in Buffalo, Hochul said during a Christmas morning news conference.
Poloncarz said Monday that the death toll has now outpaced the Blizzard of 1977.
This storm marked the first time in history that the Buffalo Fire Department couldn’t respond to any calls, officials said. National Guardsmen have been called in.
Hundreds of people have been rescued from cars, Hochul said, adding, “We still have people who need to be rescued.”
Buffalo’s airport is expected to reopen on Wednesday. Pittsburgh’s airport sent plows to help dig out the runways.
The National Hockey League canceled the Tuesday game between the Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets due to the weather and the Sabres not being able to travel from Buffalo in time for the game.
Weather fatalities across the nation
Weather-related fatalities were also reported in Ohio, Vermont, Colorado, Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri and Kentucky, according to The Associated Press.
The storm comes as brutally cold air slammed the country on Christmas morning.
The temperature plunged to minus 9 degrees in Minneapolis, 2 degrees in Chicago, 3 degrees in Denver, 15 degrees in New York, 16 degrees in Atlanta and 21 degrees in Dallas.
More than 6.3 million customers across the United States were without power at some point over the holiday weekend, officials said.
More than 165,000 customers woke up without power on Christmas morning across Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Virginia and Florida. The majority of those customers had power restored by Monday, though 15,800 customers in Maine and 13,900 in New York — the vast majority in Erie County — remained without power Monday afternoon.
Airlines continue to cancel thousands of flights in what is becoming a Christmas nightmare for so many. More than 18,200 flights have been canceled since Wednesday, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking website. More than 3,000 flights were canceled into, out of or within the United States on Christmas Eve, and more than 2,000 flights were canceled on Christmas Day.
Another 3,500 flights were canceled in the United States Monday, as of 3:30 p.m. Southwest Airlines is having significant systemwide issues and has canceled 2,600, or about 65%, of scheduled flights.
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