BUFFALO, New York — The death toll rose to 12 on Sunday from a snowstorm that dumped up to four feet of snow on Buffalo and western New York.
Some of those people were found in cars and some were even found in the street, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said. “We know there are people who have been stuck in cars for more than two days.”
For the first time in the Buffalo Fire Department’s history, they could not respond to any calls because of the conditions.
The storm unleashed its full fury on Buffalo, with hurricane-force winds and snow causing whiteout conditions, paralyzing emergency response efforts – New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said almost every fire truck in the city was stranded – and shutting down the airport until Tuesday, according to officials.
In a storm briefing on Sunday evening, Hochul said that this storm has surpassed the blizzard of 1977 in terms of ferocity and longevity.
She urged residents to stay off the roads and said the driving ban for the City of Buffalo is not expected to be lifted on Monday.
Of the 12 storm-related deaths that have been confirmed so far, the ages of the victims range from 26 years old to 93 years old. Officials said they expect that death toll to rise by the end of the night.
The National Weather Service said the snow total at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport stood at 43 inches (109 centimeters) at 7 a.m. Sunday.
Crews were out on Christmas Day, in an attempt to reach anyone who is still stranded.
Freezing conditions and day-old power outages had Buffalonians scrambling to get out of their homes to anywhere that had heat. But with city streets under a thick blanket of white, that wasn’t an option for people like Jeremy Manahan, who charged his phone in his parked car after almost 29 hours without electricity.
“There’s one warming shelter, but that would be too far for me to get to. I can’t drive, obviously, because I’m stuck,” Manahan said. “And you can’t be outside for more than 10 minutes without getting frostbit.”
Ditjak Ilunga of Gaithersburg, Maryland, was on his way to visit relatives in Hamilton, Ontario, for Christmas with his daughters Friday when their SUV was trapped in Buffalo. Unable to get help, they spent hours with the engine running in the vehicle buffeted by wind and nearly buried in snow.
By 4 a.m. Saturday, with their fuel nearly gone, Ilunga made a desperate choice to risk the howling storm to reach a nearby shelter. He carried 6-year-old Destiny on his back while 16-year-old Cindy clutched their Pomeranian puppy, stepping into his footprints as they trudged through drifts.
“If I stay in this car I’m going to die here with my kids,” he recalled thinking, but believing they had to try. He cried when the family walked through the shelter doors. “It’s something I will never forget in my life.”
The storm knocked out power in communities from Maine to Seattle. But heat and lights were steadily being restored across the U.S. According to poweroutage.us, less than 300,000 customers were without power at 8 a.m. EDT Sunday – down from a peak of 1.7 million. In North Carolina, less than 6,600 customers had no power – down from a peak of 485,000 or more. Utility officials said rolling blackouts would continue for the next few days.
Across the six New England states, about 121,300 customers remained without power on Sunday, with Maine still the hardest hit.
Storm-related deaths were reported in recent days all over the country: seven in Erie County, New York; 10 dead in multiple crashes in Ohio, including a pileup involving some 50 vehicles, a man whose sport utility vehicle ran into a snowplow and an electrocuted utility worker; four motorists killed in separate crashes in Missouri and Kansas; a Vermont woman struck by a falling branch; an apparently homeless man found amid Colorado’s subzero temperatures; a woman who fell through Wisconsin river ice.
In Florida, the thermometer plunged below freezing for the first time in almost five years at Tampa International Airport, and temperatures dropped into the 20s and 30s in other parts of central Florida area, according to the National Weather Service.
In South Florida, temperatures dropped to as low as 43 degrees (6.1 degrees Celsius) in West Palm Beach. The temperature drop was conducive to iguanas falling out of trees since the cold-blooded reptiles typically become immobilized in unusually cold weather.
Along Interstate 71 in Kentucky, Terry Henderson and her husband, Rick, weathered a 34-hour traffic jam in a rig outfitted with a diesel heater, a toilet and a refrigerator after getting stuck trying to drive from Alabama to their Ohio home for Christmas.
“We should have stayed,” Terry Henderson said after they got moving again Saturday.
Vivian Robinson of Spirit of Truth Urban Ministry in Buffalo said she and her husband have been sheltering and cooking for 60 to 70 people, including stranded travelers and locals without power or heat, who were spending Saturday night at the church.
Many arrived with ice and snow plastered to their clothes, crying, their skin reddened by the single-digit temperatures.
“It’s emotional just to see the hurt that they thought they were not going to make it, and to see that we had opened up the church, and it gave them a sense of relief,” Robinson said. “Those who are here are really enjoying themselves. It’s going to be a different Christmas for everyone.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story
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