29 Dec 2022

Troops check for more victims as Buffalo blizzard thaw begins

5:25 pm on 29 December 2022
US National Guard assist in recovery efforts after a record winter storm in Buffalo, New York, on 28 December, 2022.

US National Guard assist in recovery efforts after a record winter storm in Buffalo, New York, on 28 December, 2022. Photo: AFP

By Lindsay DeDario and Rich McKay

US National Guard troops have trudged door-to-door in Buffalo in search of additional winter storm victims hit by prolonged power outages, following a deadly Christmas blizzard that buried New York's second-largest city in blinding snow.

The fiercest blizzard to strike western New York in 45 years was part of a wider winter storm front and arctic blast that drove freezing temperatures as far south as the Mexican border for days, leaving scores dead nationwide, including at least 38 in the Buffalo area.

Many of the dead in and around Buffalo, which lies at the western edge of Lake Erie near the Canadian border, were found frozen in cars or in snowbanks, while some died from cardiac arrest while shoveling snow, according to Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz.

Erie County updated the death toll from the storm on Wednesday, reporting 37 deaths in Erie County, with one other person reported dead as a result of the storm in neighboring Niagara County.

Poloncarz said the National Guard was conducting wellness checks in each neighborhood of Buffalo and its suburbs where electricity was out for lengthy periods, looking for anyone who may have suffered hypothermia or some other medical distress while trapped indoors without power and heat.

"We are fearful there are individuals who may have perished living alone, or two people who are not doing well in an establishment, especially those who still don't have power," he told reporters.

He said paramedic squads would also visit every household where residents had called the county's special snowstorm hotline for help but were beyond the physical reach of emergency personnel at the height of the blizzard.

Nearly all electricity had been restored by Wednesday morning throughout Erie County, with fewer than 1000 homes that utility crews hoped to have back in service by the end of the day, Poloncarz said.

At the same time, nearly 80 front-end loaders were working around the clock to shovel tons of snow into about 120 dump trucks to be hauled to disposal lots. The goal was to get at least one lane of traffic open on each street by Wednesday night, Poloncarz said.

Thaw and floods next

As the storm's remnants tapered off to flurries early on Wednesday, the National Weather Service reported that Buffalo, ground zero of the storm, had received more than 140 cm of snow since late last week. But howling winds piled up drifts far higher across the region, burying hundreds of vehicles, including snow plows, ambulances and tow trucks.

The mercury climbed above freezing on Wednesday, and forecasts called for the thaw to continue with spring-like temperatures and showers likely by week's end. The abrupt shift was likely to cause flooding and ice jams on local creeks while rapidly turning the region's frozen landscape to slush.

"We're actually expecting a rapid melt over the next two days, because we're going to hit 50 degrees (Fahrenheit)," Poloncarz said. "We are preparing with the state for the possibility of flooding."

A driving ban remained in effect for Buffalo with military and New York City police officers called in to wave cars off the road and turn away traffic trying to enter the city.

Even for a region accustomed to heavy bouts of "lake-effect" snow - the result of moisture picked up by frigid air moving over warmer lake waters - the latest blizzard ranked as one of the most paralysing ever in Western New York.

In terms of its ferocity, duration and death toll, the Christmas storm exceeded a 1977 blizzard that killed nearly 30 people and was the local benchmark against which all such weather events had since been measured.

This week's thaw was part of a larger warming trend unfolding across the eastern third of the United States and will extend past New Year's Day, with temperatures remaining largely above freezing, said Josh Weiss, a meteorologist with the NWS Weather Prediction Center in Maryland.

NWS forecasts called for potentially excessive rainfall and heavy mountain snow sweeping much of the West Coast beginning on Thursday, powered by a "potent atmospheric river" expected to hit central and northern California and southwestern Oregon hardest.

Showers and thunderstorms are expected in the Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi Valley, the weather service said.

Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles.

- Reuters

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