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Dec 25 (Reuters) – A deadly blizzard paralyzed Buffalo, New York, on Christmas Day, stranding drivers and rescuers in their vehicles, leaving thousands of homes without power and raising the death toll from storms that chilled much of the United States for days.
At least 30 people have died in weather-related incidents in the U.S., according to NBC News, since a deep freeze gripped much of the nation, combined with snow, ice and howling winds from a growing storm that ripped through Great Lakes region on Friday.
CNN reported a total of 26 victims of the weather.
Much of the loss of life is concentrated in and around Buffalo on the shores of Lake Erie in western New York as freezing cold and heavy lake effect snow – the result of cold air moving over warmer lake waters – continues over the holiday weekend.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the confirmed death toll from the storm rose to 13 on Sunday, compared to three reported overnight in the Buffalo area. The latest victims included some found in cars and others in snowbanks, Poloncarz said, adding that the death toll was likely to rise further.
“This is not the Christmas that any of us hoped for or expected,” Poloncarz said on Twitter on Sunday. “My deepest condolences to the families who have lost loved ones.”
New York Gov. Cathy Hochul called it an “epic, once-in-a-lifetime” weather disaster that ranked as the worst winter storm to hit most of Buffalo since the crippling blizzard of 1977 that killed nearly 30 souls.
“We have now surpassed the scale of this storm in terms of its intensity, its longevity, the ferocity of its winds,” Hochul said at an evening news conference, adding that the current storm will likely go down in history as “the blizzard of ’22.”
RESCUING THE RESCUERS
The latest blizzard came nearly six weeks after a record-breaking but shorter-lived lake-effect storm hit western New York.
Despite the road closures in place since Friday, hundreds of Erie County drivers were stranded in their vehicles over the weekend, with National Guard troops called in to help with rescue operations hampered by whiteout conditions and drifting snow, Poloncarz said.
Many snowplows and other equipment sent over Saturday and Sunday got stuck in the snow “and we had to send rescue missions to save the rescuers,” he told reporters.
The Buffalo Police Department posted an online appeal to the public for help in search and recovery efforts, asking those “who have a snowmobile and are willing to help” to call a hotline for instructions.
The force of the storm was remarkable even for a region accustomed to harsh winter weather.
Christina Klafka, 39, of North Buffalo, watched shingles fly from her neighbor’s home and heard her windows rattle from “hurricane winds.” She lost power along with her entire neighborhood Saturday night and was still without power Sunday morning.
“My TV kept flashing while I was trying to watch the Buffalo Bills vs. Chicago Bears game. I lost power just after the 3rd quarter,” she 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, which he called “mean and nasty.”
“Nobody was out. Nobody was even walking their dogs,” he said. “Nothing happened for two days.”
Snowfall totals were hard to gauge, he added, because of fierce winds that reduced accumulation between houses, but piled up a 5-foot (1.5-meter) drift “in front of my garage.”
Hochul told reporters Sunday that the Biden administration had agreed to support her request for a federal disaster declaration.
About 200 National Guard soldiers were mobilized in western New York to assist police and fire crews, perform health checks and deliver supplies to shelters, Hochul said.
CURRENT HITS HARD
The larger storm system was moving east on Sunday after knocking out power to about 1.5 million customers amid outages late last week and forcing thousands of commercial flight cancellations during the busy holiday period.
More than 150,000 U.S. homes and businesses were without power Sunday, down sharply from the 1.8 million without power early Saturday, according to PowerOutage.us. In Buffalo, 15,000 residents were still without power Sunday night, Poloncarz said.
He said one downed electrical substation was isolated by an 18-foot mound of snow and utility crews found the entire facility frozen inside.
Christmas Day temperatures, while beginning to recover from the near-freezing readings that were widespread Saturday, remained well below average across the central and eastern United States and below freezing even as far south as the Gulf Coast, National Weather Service meteorologist service (NWS) Rich Otto said.
Nearly 4 feet of snow was measured at the Buffalo airport through Sunday, according to the latest NWS data, with clear conditions lingering south of Buffalo into the afternoon as continuing storms dumped 2-3 inches of snow per hour.
In Kentucky, officials confirmed three storm-related deaths since Friday, while at least four people were killed and several injured in car crashes in Ohio, where a 50-car pileup closed an Ohio highway during Friday’s blizzard.
Other deaths linked to extreme cold or weather-related vehicle crashes were reported in Missouri, Tennessee, Kansas and Colorado, according to news reports.
(Story edited to remove redundant word in title)
Reporting by Gabriela Borter and Ahmed Abulenin in Washington; Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani, Idreis Ali, Ismail Shakeel, Rick Cowan and ; Written by Steve Gorman; editing by Ross Colvin, Diane Craft, Nick Zieminski, Leslie Adler, Gerry Doyle and Bradley Perrett
Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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