Powerful blizzard kills at least 32 people in western New York

Hundreds of national guard troops were assisting local first responders and state police on Monday as crews rescued people trapped in homes and cars.

 A general view of an area covered in snow, following a winter storm that struck the region, in Buffalo, New York, U.S December 25, 2022, in this picture obtained by Reuters from social media on December 26, 2022. (photo credit: INSTAGRAM/JASON MURAWSKI JR/VIA REUTERS)
A general view of an area covered in snow, following a winter storm that struck the region, in Buffalo, New York, U.S December 25, 2022, in this picture obtained by Reuters from social media on December 26, 2022.
(photo credit: INSTAGRAM/JASON MURAWSKI JR/VIA REUTERS)

A powerful blizzard that paralyzed Western New York over Christmas weekend killed at least 32 people, local officials said on Monday, as road and utility crews faced a long day of digging out the snowed-in region around Buffalo.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said at a Monday morning briefing that the county’s tally of storm-related deaths had jumped by 12 overnight, and included cases of people who were found in snow banks, in their cars or who had died from cardiac events while plowing or blowing snow.

More deaths had been reported, Poloncarz said, but the county medical examiner was trying to determine if they were directly attributable to the weather.

“There still are probably additional deaths that will be announced later today,” Poloncarz said.

The blizzard, deemed the area’s worst in 45 years, took form late on Friday and pummeled Western New York through the holiday weekend. It capped an Arctic freeze and winter storm front that had extended over most of the US for days, stretching as far south as the Mexican border.

A general view of an area covered in snow, following a winter storm that struck the region, in Buffalo, New York, U.S December 25, 2022, in this picture obtained by Reuters from social media on December 26, 2022.  (credit: INSTAGRAM/JASON MURAWSKI JR/VIA REUTERS)A general view of an area covered in snow, following a winter storm that struck the region, in Buffalo, New York, U.S December 25, 2022, in this picture obtained by Reuters from social media on December 26, 2022. (credit: INSTAGRAM/JASON MURAWSKI JR/VIA REUTERS)

“I cannot remember a storm this bad in my entire life,” said Jill Komm, chief creative officer at the Buffalo Jewish Federation.

“We are very used to snow and we know how to handle it,” said Komm. “But this storm was like hurricane-grade winds with four feet of snow. So many people lost power and you couldn’t see anything, you couldn’t drive. It was paralyzing, basically. And it came in so quickly that some people were still driving when the storm hit. So a lot of people got stuck and were abandoned on the roads. Some people should have not gone out driving, but other people had no choice.

“You hear stories of people who were getting dialysis and were just on their way home Friday morning or other people getting chemo treatment and trying to get home from the hospital. It’s just heart wrenching,” she said. “People’s cars slid off the road or they got buried [under the snow] and couldn’t open their doors.”

Given the extreme conditions, authorities imposed a driving ban, making it nearly impossible for rescue teams to help those in need.

“They are finally starting to clear the roads. But the problem is, is that there are so many cars that were abandoned in the roads that plows can’t even get through the streets,” Komm said, adding that the 911 call center had not been operational for days.

“There’s physically nothing anybody can do because you’re not allowed to drive,” she said.

“But we do have something called the Compassion Fund set up for our community, if anybody needs assistance,” said Komm. “So I would imagine when people can communicate [again] they will be able to get financial assistance through this fund that we already have established. Once everyone’s back in business, the Federation is always here to assist and help the community.”

At least 55 people have died in US weather-related incidents since late last week, according to an NBC News tally.

 A general view of a neighbourhood covered in snow, following a winter storm that struck the region, in Buffalo, New York, U.S December 25, 2022, in this picture obtained by Reuters from social media on December 26, 2022.  (credit: INSTAGRAM/JASON MURAWSKI JR/VIA REUTERS) A general view of a neighbourhood covered in snow, following a winter storm that struck the region, in Buffalo, New York, U.S December 25, 2022, in this picture obtained by Reuters from social media on December 26, 2022. (credit: INSTAGRAM/JASON MURAWSKI JR/VIA REUTERS)

The greater Buffalo region, on the edge of Lake Erie near the Canadian border, has been one of the hardest-hit places. Cars and buses were buried under towering snow drifts, and high-lift equipment was being used for hospital transports where ambulances could not drive.

Up to a foot of snow was still forecast to fall through Tuesday in some areas south of Buffalo and north of Syracuse.

Heavy winds and “lake-effect” snow – the result of moisture picked up by frigid air moving over warmer lake waters – produced a storm that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said would go down in history as “the Blizzard of ’22,” ranked the worst since a 1977 blizzard killed nearly 30 people.

Rescue efforts persist 

Hundreds of National Guard troops were assisting local first responders and state police on Monday as crews rescued people trapped in homes and cars, performed wellness checks and delivered food and basic needs.

Emergency workers have struggled to navigate past snow drifts to do their jobs, and many snow plows, tow trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles dispatched over the weekend had to be rescued themselves after getting stuck in the snow, county officials said.

Thousands of people in Erie County had power restored as of Monday morning, County Executive Poloncarz said, while some 13,000 customers were still without power statewide, according to poweroutage.us.

A driving ban was still in effect in Buffalo on Monday, for safety purposes and to keep the roads clear for emergency and utility workers trying to weave through a nearly impassable obstacle course of buried cars and snow banks.

“There are cars everywhere. Everywhere. Pointing the wrong direction on roads, they’ve basically been plowed in and they need to be dug out and towed. It’s going to take time to clear those,” Poloncarz said.