US emergency crews counted the grim costs of a colossal winter storm that brought Christmas chaos to millions, especially in hard-hit western New York, where the death toll reached 25 Monday in what authorities described as a “war with mother nature.”
Blizzard conditions continue to prevail in parts of the US Northeast, the stubborn remnants of a massive sprawl of extreme weather including severe cold that gripped the country over several days, causing widespread power outages, travel delays and at least 47 deaths nationwide.
The extreme weather forced the cancellation of more than 15,000 flights in recent days including more than 1,700 on Monday, according to tracking site Flightaware.com.
Buffalo — a US city that is no stranger to foul winter weather — has been buried under staggering amounts of snow, with the National Weather Service forecasting up to 14 inches (0.35 meters) Monday in addition to the several feet that have already left the city marooned, with a virtual collapse of emergency services.
The blizzard has stubbornly refused to release its grip on western New York’s Erie County, where Buffalo is located and which has become the epicenter of the crisis.
“In addition to the 13 confirmed deaths yesterday, the Erie County Department of Health medical examiner’s office has confirmed an additional 12 deaths, bringing the total for the blizzard to 25 deaths county-wide,” Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz said in a press briefing.
The ferocious weather makes this “the worst storm probably in our lifetime, and the history of the city,” Poloncarz said, noting the death toll in Erie will likely surpass that of Buffalo’s infamous blizzard of 1977, when nearly 30 people died.
With more snow in the forecast and most of Buffalo “impassable,” he warned residents to bunker down and stay in place.
“This is not the end yet, we are not there,” he said.
National Guard members and other teams have rescued hundreds of people from snow-covered cars and homes without electricity, but authorities have said more people remain trapped.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul, a native of Buffalo, said she was stunned by what she saw during a Sunday reconnaissance tour of the city.
“It is (like) going to a war zone, and the vehicles along the sides of the roads are shocking,” Hochul said, describing eight-foot (2.4-meter) snow drifts against homes and how power outages made for life-threatening conditions.
“This is a war with mother nature,” she said.
The extreme weather sent wind chill temperatures in all 48 contiguous US states below freezing over the weekend.
Sweeping power outages
At one point on Saturday, nearly 1.7 million customers were without electricity in the biting cold, according to tracker poweroutage.us.
That number has dropped substantially, although there were still some 50,000 without electricity Monday morning on the US east coast.
Due to frozen electric substations, some Erie County residents were not expected to regain power until Tuesday, with one substation reportedly buried under 18 feet of snow, a senior county official said.
Officials described historically dangerous conditions in the snow-prone Buffalo region, with hours-long whiteouts and bodies discovered in vehicles and under snow banks. Emergency workers continued the difficult search for those in need of rescue.
The city’s international airport remains closed until Tuesday and a driving ban remained in effect for Buffalo and much of Erie County.
Road ice and white-out conditions also led to the temporary closure of some of the nation’s busiest transport routes, including part of the cross-country Interstate 70 highway.
Drivers were being warned not to take to the roads — even as the nation reached what is usually its busiest time of year for travel.